Answer to a question from a reader

I am unemployed and cannot afford to pay school fees. What can I do?

The short answer

If you qualify, the school must exempt you from paying fees. If not, they need to inform you in writing.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

I am an unemployed mother living on grants with my kids. I have been applying for school fee exemption but the school has handed over the account for collection. What can I do to solve this?

The long answer

Before the school is allowed to take legal action against you for not paying outstanding school fees, it must find out whether you qualify for fee exemption or not. If you do qualify, the school must exempt you. If they did not receive your application, the school must send you written notice that you have not applied for exemption, and must give you three months to pay the outstanding amount before taking any legal action.

The school must have proof that you were notified in writing of your right to apply for exemption, but you did not apply.

If all these steps were followed, the school is allowed to hand over the outstanding fees to a debt collector.

It’s not clear from your email whether the School Governing Body (SGB) turned down your application for exemption from paying school fees, or whether they did not receive your application at the beginning of the year.

Since you are unemployed, it is unlikely that the SGB would turn down your application for exemption. Parents who can’t afford to pay school fees must apply to the SGB for conditional or partial or full exemption from paying fees. This application is made on forms available at the school from the principal. 

It used to be that the means test for paying fees was based on the combined annual gross income of both parents. But in 2018 the judge in a Supreme Court case found that this requirement laid a heavy burden on single mothers, and now when a single parent applies for exemption, the total or partial exemption granted is what the parent would be entitled to if she were the only parent of the learner. The school can also charge the other parent for fees but this doesn’t affect the parent who made the application exemption. 

The means test is as follows: “If the parent’s income is less than ten times the annual school fees per learner, the parent qualifies for full exemption. Partial exemptions are given for those whose income is more than ten times but less than thirty times the annual fees.”

The School Governing Body (SGB) must inform the parent in writing whether the application was successful or not 7 days after assessing the application form.

If a parent is not satisfied with the SGB decision, she can appeal to the Head of Department (HOD) within 30 days of receiving the school’s decision. The school must provide the form for the appeal where the parent must give the reasons for the appeal and must explain the form and assist the parent to fill it in to lodge an appeal with the HOD. The HOD must ask for a copy of the SGB’s minutes where the exemption application was discussed, and the HOD must instruct the SGB not to go ahead with debt collection until the final decision is made. The HOD must make the final decision within 14 days, and notify the school and the parent in writing within 7 days of making the decision and give the reasons for the decision. If the appeal fails, the parent can apply for Judicial Review to the High Court under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act (PAJA).

To sum it all up briefly, the school can hand you over to debt collectors if you don’t apply for exemption and don’t pay the school fees. But they have to be able to prove that they informed you in writing that you had the right to apply for exemption, and you still did not apply.

Whatever the case was, perhaps your first step should be to approach the school and ask for a meeting where you can try to work out some kind of an agreement with them.

You can also contact the office of the Credit Ombud for free assistance in dealing with the credit bureau. Phone 0861 66 28 37, visit, email or send an SMS to 44786 and they will call you. 

You could also approach education rights organisations like Section 27 or Equal Education for advice and assistance:

Remember that the South African Schools Act says that no learner may be deprived of their right to “participate in all aspects of the programme of a public school despite non-payment of school fees”.

Wishing you the best,

Answered on May 28, 2021, 2:09 p.m.

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Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.