School fee exemption is a right

‘My father ... passed away on 1 January 1999. I live with my grandmother.
She pays for my school fees from her pension, which is not enough since she also has to look after my aunt’s children and my uncle’s son. We are suffering and there is hardly any food. We request that you give us rations and education grants.”

Written by a 10-year-old, this is one of 24 letters received this year by Children in Need and Distress (Cindi), a network of children’s organisations in KwaZulu-Natal.

The letters, from children, parents and caregivers, demonstrate that some schools are still not alerting parents to their rights concerning school fees. Government policy is that parents can apply for partial or complete exemption from fees.

Many of the children are using the government’s child support grant to pay for school fees. ‘My mother relies on the state grant for my uniform and fees [and] even though it is not enough to meet all the requirements, it helps,” wrote one child.

Some of the letters sent to Cindi describe victimisation by school peers and teachers because the children cannot afford the fees or uniforms.

Cindi forwarded the 24 letters to the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement for Social Security (Acess), which says the child support grant should not be used to pay school fees and that school governing bodies have legal authority to decide on an exemption policy for poor learners.

Patricia Martin, director at Acess, said that the problem is nationwide but especially prevalent in poorer communities. ‘The schools [there] are more dependent on school fees so they are more stingy in informing parents of their rights ... There is pressure on children to pay something.”

‘Children cannot be denied [education] on the basis of parents’ failure to pay fees,” said national Department of Education (DoE) representative Molatwane Likhethe. The DoE has ‘made lots and lots of noise” regarding the exemption policy, he said, and it is ‘regrettable if children are still not accessing education”.

Mandla Msibi, representative for the KwaZulu-Natal education department, said that parents should attend school meetings, and that the department would determine whether school governing bodies are informing parents of their rights.

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