Fee relief for single parents

Home stretch: Michelle Saffer faces Fish Hoek High, the South Peninsula school she battled with to get a fee exemption for her daughter. (David Harrison)

Home stretch: Michelle Saffer faces Fish Hoek High, the South Peninsula school she battled with to get a fee exemption for her daughter. (David Harrison)

Schools will be forced to grant fee exemptions to thousands of cash-strapped divorced or separated parents if a proposed amendment to the South African Schools Act becomes law.

Currently, these parents have to provide proof of their combined annual gross income to qualify for fee exemptions.

School governing bodies have refused to grant deserving single parents fee concessions because of their failure to get their former partners to submit details of their annual income.

But this regulation is set to be scrapped if the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill is endorsed by Parliament.

Once enacted, a single or divorced parent will become eligible for a fee exemption simply by supplying an affidavit stating that the other parent was untraceable or unwilling to provide his or her annual gross income.

Michelle Saffer, whose daughter was a pupil at Fish Hoek High School in the Western Cape, is among scores of parents across the country who have been battling to secure either partial or full exemption from the payment of fees.

Her protracted battle with the Western Cape education department and the school’s governing body over its refusal to grant her a partial fee exemption started way back in 2013 when her daughter, who is now a first-year student at university, was in grade 10.

The matter is expected to be heard in the high court in Cape Town later this month.

Saffer, who is being represented by Equal Education, is arguing that the department of basic education’s formula for the calculation of fee exemptions “is highly prejudicial to single parents living apart from their former partners”.

“It results in the exemption process being rendered unworkable for myself and many other mothers whose former partners fail to supply details of their income,” she contended in court papers.

Her main bone of contention was the governing body’s insistence on her providing her annual gross income as well as that of her ex-husband. After applying for a partial fee exemption in 2011, the governing body informed her that it could not consider her application without proof of his income.

The court papers describe how “degrading and humiliating” it has been for Saffer’s fee exemption application to hinge on her former husband providing particulars of his income.

She told the school that she was not in a position to provide his financial particulars and that “it was unreasonable for the school to expect her to obtain this information”. She stated that they led separate lives and that it was ridiculous for the school to demand that they complete a joint exemption application.

“I am in no way a family unit with my daughter’s biological father. I divorced him soon after she was born. Divorced is another way of saying we are separated. I know very little about his life. I do not have the kind of relationship which would enable me to do financial calculations as a ‘family unit’.”

Saffer said the regulation was unconstitutional because it failed to acknowledge the “substantial handicap” faced by separated parents in trying to get the required financial information.

Between 2013 and 2015, Fish Hoek High granted 477 full and partial exemptions from the payment of fees and rejected 14 applications.

According to Saffer’s court documents, several other parents face a similar predicament to hers.

One of them, whose child was at Parow North Primary, had her appeal against the governing body’s refusal to grant her a fee exemption turned down by the provincial department last year.

The child’s biological father had refused to assist the mother in applying for a fee exemption.

Western Cape education department head Penny Vinjevold stated in court papers that her department did recognise that there were grey areas in the fee exemption policy, which allowed for varied interpretation by governing bodies.

She said they had made a submission to the department of basic education to review the regulations.

The department’s former acting director general, Paddy Padayachee, conceded in an affidavit that the regulations created “practical difficulties” for parents such as Saffer “who struggle to get the requisite financial information from the other parent”.

The department’s director general, Mathanzima Mweli, said that if the minister approved the Bill it would then be submitted to Cabinet for approval before being published in draft form for public comment.

Tim Gordon, national chief executive of the Governing Body Foundation, said if the proposed amendment became law it would set a dangerous precedent. “We have sufficient proof of the fact that people in fairly significant numbers are not honest and we believe that this opens the door to a great deal of additional dishonesty.”

Said Gordon: “It could potentially cheat schools out of hundreds of thousands of rands in fees.”

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