Knowledge of rights is empowerment

KNOWLEDGE: Parents should know the law sufficiently well to discuss issues with the school before calling in Wits legal experts. 18/01/08.
KNOWLEDGE: Parents should know the law sufficiently well to discuss issues with the school before calling in Wits legal experts. 18/01/08.

Staff Reporter

Staff Reporter

At this time of the year, some poor parents and pupils often find themselves facing non-admission, debt collection activity and the withholding of report cards because of unpaid school fees.

What parents do not know is that it is illegal to charge any school fees for a pupil who is registered at a "no-fees" school, who is an orphan, who has been placed in the care of a family member and who is a child who heads a household or is part of a child-headed household or whose parent receives a social grant on behalf of the same pupil.

This is according Phillipa Tucker of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Cals) at Wits.

The centre has been providing legal advice and legal assistance to poor parents on school fees- related matters since 2002.

Tucker illustrates the issues that some parents experience regarding school fees.

"Osmond Mongake* finally matriculated after five years of struggling at a local high school, because for five years he and his mother Sanele Mongake* battled with the school on the issue of school fees.

"In June 2005, Sanele approached Cals for assistance with her application to the school for a fee exemption," she said.

The organisation was asked to intervene again at the end of the year. In January 2006 the school again tried to collect fees from Sanele but was unsuccessful in preventing a determined Sanele from applying for an exemption.

"It was a struggle just to get the application form from them," says Sanele, but the school granted him a partial exemption, calling it a "partial bursary" which is a misleading term that many schools use to trick parents into thinking that they still have to pay school fees and that the school is doing them a favour.

Late last year, Stacey Shipman*, Sanele's employer, said a member of the School Governing Body, rang the bell at Sanele's place of work and asked to be allowed in to discuss fees as he was collecting payments.

"He was basically debt-collecting," says Stacey, who also alleges that the administrator had previously made "derogatory and racist remarks". The two women warned him that they knew their rights and that he should leave.

Last year Osmond completed his final exams but that is not the end of the five-year battle between parent and school for him. Just last week Osmond went to collect the documentation necessary to access his tertiary education. He was told that he could not get it until the school fees account was up to date and paid in full.

Stacey and Sanele, now well versed in their rights, felt confident enough to discuss the issue with the school themselves before it was necessary for Cals to step in, a sure sign that knowing your rights is a step to empowerment.

"It seems that the staff at the high school has never fully understood the law or agreed to abide by it, so Osmond is now waiting to see if he will get his Senior Certificate," said Tucker.

* Not their real names