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What to do if you're struggling to pay your children’s school fees

Check if you qualify for fees exemption and which documents are needed

Many parents are struggling to keep paying school fees, and while government and some private schools have offered contingency plans, other private schools have not. 


Grade 7 and grade 12 learners are bracing themselves for a return to school next week. However, two months into the national Covid-19 lockdown, many parents are floundering when it comes to keeping up with school fees. And while government and some private schools have offered contingency plans, other private schools have not. 

*Sharifa Adams (name changed) says she usually pays monthly school fees but contacted the schools as soon as the lockdown started. 

“My husband and I run a motor repair business and I knew we would have no funds coming in. I immediately contacted all my creditors to make arrangements.” 

Adams has two daughters at former Model C schools in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, one in grade 7 and one in grade 11. Monthly fees are R2,250 at the primary school and R1,930 at the high school.

“At the primary school we have the option to either defer fees and the annual amount outstanding must be paid off by year-end or we can apply for a total exemption of fees,” she says. 

Bronagh Hammond of the Western Cape Department of Education confirmed at the beginning of the lockdown that parents could apply for a school fees exemption when schools reopened, which would enable the schools to apply for fee compensation from the government. 

Thomas Karberg, candidate attorney at Werksmans Attorneys, says at government schools the Schools Act prohibits the refusal of admission, suspension or expulsion of a learner due to non-payment of school fees. 

However, private schools have contractual relationships with parents. “Considering the ongoing Covid-19 situation and its effect on the economy and the livelihoods of many South Africans, schools should be careful not to appear draconian in the enforcement of their contractual rights. 

“Schools should consult with parents and attempt to settle the outstanding fees or make provision for alternative repayment terms before considering exclusion of a learner,” he says.  

Kimeshree Pillay of Bentley Attorneys says that while the Schools Act does not prohibit independent schools from suspending or expelling learners whose parents have failed to pay school fees, schools must still follow fair procedure, including adequate warning prior to suspension or exclusion and arrangements to settle fees. 

Adams says since they are an SME she now first has to pay an auditor to go through their financial statements before the high school will grant them relief. They requested copies of both parents’ identity documents and all children’s birth certificates; proof of residence; three months’ bank statements and three latest salary slips; an affidavit if you are unemployed; and audited financial statements if you run your own business.

What are the private schools doing?

Money looked at the two largest private school groups in the country. Mari Lategan, executive of marketing and communications at Curro Holdings, says the company has set up a Covid-19 Care Fund of R50 million to assist struggling parents. 

In addition to the Care Fund, all Curro parents automatically qualify for relief in June, with discounts ranging from 10% to 15% on tuition fees and a 50% discount on bus, boarding and aftercare fees. 

Curro’s biggest competitor, Advtech, which owns Abbotts College, Varsity College, Rosebank College, Trinity House and Crawford schools, is also providing some financial relief. Nwabisa Piki, head of investor relations and company secretary at Advtech, says the company has supported over 5,300 families with assistance worth R24m. 

AdvTech CEO Roy Douglas notes that the R24m relief is in addition to an annual bursary support programme of some R200m, which benefits about 13,250 students.

Online schooling

Schools are increasingly moving into the online environment. Some schools, such as the primary school Adams’ daughter attends, were already using devices and simply shifted to online classes. 

Teachers are using platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom to interact with learners.

Curro Online business manager Jay Paul says many parents have concerns about sending children back to school, especially those with immune-compromised family members in the same household. While existing Curro schools have facilitated online learning during the lockdown, the group recently launched Curro Online, which offers English medium classes and will launch with grades 4 to 9, with new grades phased in every year.

Other online school options that are currently available include Virtual Schools, WorkSheetCloud, Brainline, Clonard Education, Think Digital College, Cambrilearn and Teneo. 

What you can do: 

  • Speak to your school bursar to request a deferment of your fees until year-end.
  • Check if you qualify for fees exemption and which supporting documents are needed. 
  • Review options such as aftercare. You may have to give the school 30 days’ notice if you want to cancel it. 
  • Look at switching to a more affordable school. 
  • Investigate online school options. Remember to factor in monthly data costs and costs for devices and printing in addition to fees.