A growing number of schools in South Africa have a real problem – unpaid fees

Government’s budget allocation for basic education is under increased pressure, as a growing number of parents with children at fee-paying public schools find they can no longer afford school fees.

This is according to TPN Credit Bureau, which said that collecting fees is the biggest challenge facing schools in the country.

The Department of Basic Education’s budget allocation for the 2020/2021 financial year decreased by 5.3% compared to the previous year. In South Africa two-thirds of all children attend no fee schools, leaving the state to pick up the tab for their education, it said.

A minority of around 6.5% attend private schools while the balance of children attend fee paying public schools.

The latter, which accounts for around a third of all public schools, are reliant on school fees both to pay for additional teachers not funded by the Department of Basic Education as well as additional costs incurred by the school.

“However, parents with children at fee paying public schools can apply for exemption from fees based on their financial situation. This means that fee paying public schools are increasingly being forced to balance fee collection with providing fee exemptions to parents with little or no income,” it said.

TPN said that an inability to collect all fees owing has negative implications for schools both from a budgeting and sustainability perspective, given that school fees are the largest source of income for more than 90% of private schools and 60% of public schools.

At the same time, parents at fee-paying public schools cite the high cost of school fees amongst their top three school related issues, along with a lack of textbooks and the fact that classroom sizes are too big.

“The challenge facing many schools – even prior to the Covid crisis – is that paying school fees is not a high priority amongst a growing body of parents who are prioritising mortgages, rent, car finance, store cards and even pay day loans over school fees,” said Michelle Dickens, managing director of TPN Credit Bureau.

Dickens pointed out that this trend has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The TPN 2020 School Fee Payment Monitor indicates that school fee collections were at their peak in January 2020 with 61.5% of parents paid up.

“During the lockdown less than one in two parents were paid up in full. August was the worst month for school fee collection with only 45.9% of parents paid up. This increased in November when 52% of parents were paid up,” said Dickens.

Despite the opportunity to apply for an exemption from school fees, 21.6% of learners who opt out of the education system cite a lack of money to pay school fees as their reason for dropping out of school.

“The reality is that the cost of education is not limited to school fees alone,” Dickens said.

“What also needs to be factored in is the cost of transport to get to school. Many families cannot afford this with the result that 66% of children at public schools are left to walk to school.”

Given the knock-on effects of the economic downturn as a result of the lockdown it is expected that 2021 will see an increase in the number of parents who apply for exemptions from fee paying public schools.

One way for schools to ascertain whether or not parents actually qualify for an exemption is to make an enquiry through a credit bureau. TPN said it communicates with parents on a regular basis regarding their credit profile, which is based on the payment of school fees.

According Dickens, schools are able to make use of credit checks, letters of demand and blacklisting in the same way that any business is.

Read: Schools are not ready to open: survey

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A growing number of schools in South Africa have a real problem – unpaid fees