Private schools can't victimise kids when parents don't pay, judge rules

The ground of John Wesley School in Pinetown.
The ground of John Wesley School in Pinetown.

When a church school prevented a 10-year-old writing his mid-year exams because his parents were in arrears with fees, the tactic worked.

His parents cashed in a funeral policy to find the money, and the John Wesley School pupil was allowed back into the exam room.

But now the KwaZulu-Natal primary school, which is run by the Methodist Church in Pinetown, has been slammed for unconstitutional behaviour by a high court judge.

And her ruling will force a change in the policy of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa, which has about 760 schools with a total of 160,000 pupils.

Judge Mokgere Masipa
Judge Mokgere Masipa

“[The school’s] conduct in isolating [the boy] and placing him in the art room while other learners wrote examinations was degrading, humiliating and inhumane,” Judge Mokgere Masipa said in the Durban high court.

She rejected John Wesley’s argument that as a private school it could not contravene the constitutional right to education, because parents and pupils could choose a public school instead.

The school’s exclusion policy, which it said it had applied for many years, “results in a standard inferior to that which is applicable in public education”, said Masipa.

“It is clearly contrary to public policy and is aimed at humiliating, degrading and victimising learners.”

The 10-year-old's father went to court in May 2016 when pleas for clemency to John Wesley principal Darron Tarr were unsuccessful. He insisted that the man’s son could not write exams until arrears of R3,830 were paid, and refused to negotiate payment terms.

In court papers, the school said threats to prevent pupils writing exams reduced its total arrears of R621,000 by 68% during 12 days in May 2016.

But the boy’s father said the humiliation of being sent to the art room while his classmates were writing exams had harmed his son's psychological well-being and self-esteem. He characterised it as neglect and abuse.

The school told Masipa its policy was in line with an Isasa policy document, but the judge said: “While it is accepted that independent schools are autonomous, this does not exclude them from the operations of the Consumer Protection Act and the constitution.

John Wesley School principal Darron Tarr
John Wesley School principal Darron Tarr

“The best practice in respect of independent schools and the non-payment of school fees would be to engage in collection methods that do not impact in the child’s best interest.

“Where it becomes necessary to secure school fees after exhausting these collection mechanisms, the schools should ensure that this is done in a manner which does not victimise or humiliate the learner.

“If this is implemented subsequent to the end-of-the-year examinations the rights enshrined by the constitution will not be violated.”

On the school website, Tarr says it produces “young men and women with the knowledge, character and integrity necessary to become outstanding citizens and boldly face up to the numerous challenges with which they will be confronted in modern society.

“The teaching of Jesus Christ is a core focus of the school and no effort is spared in the drive to instil a deep Christian conviction in its children. The development of sound personal values such as tolerance and respect, both for oneself and others, is inextricably linked to this drive.”

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