Fees free fall, independent schools close

Parents’ inability to pay school fees has led to the closure of independent schools because they cannot afford to continue teaching learners, according to the chairperson of the National Alliance of Independent Schools Association (Naisa).

Mandla Mthembu said the situation was exacerbated by provincial departments of education failing to pay subsidies to the independent schools. 

Naisa is an umbrella organisation that represents the interests of associations of independent schools. The alliance represents 1 400 independent schools in the country.

Schools have attributed their loss of income to parents who have been retrenched or had their salaries cut as a consequence of economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some schools said their parents worked at restaurants, which have been closed during the lockdown. Other parents had not paid school fees even before the pandemic. 

Some schools have been hit harder than others. For example, in the Free State, Dihlabeng Christian School moved from collecting 75% of school fees in March to just 14% in April, while Edu-College in Welkom collected 50% school fees in March but only 3% in April. 

Mthembu said the average school fees payment percentage for independent schools stood at about 21% in April and dropped to 18% in June. 

“This means that in a school with 100 parents who are supposed to be paying school fees, only 18 are paying. You cannot run a school, pay teachers and pay for all your overheads with only 18 parents paying,” he said, adding that “the collection of school fees and sending out lawyers’ letters of demand is also costly to the schools”. 

Naisa has not done a formal survey of how many independent schools have closed, but Mthembu said Naisa was aware of schools closing in the Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

“Even as the closure of schools was being proposed we had schools telling us that if they were forced to close now they will not be able to reopen since there would be not funds to continue,” said Mthembu.

He explained that when an independent school is closed arrangements are made for learners to be moved into the public school system. 

Some schools have reported that they have also lost learners because parents have chosen to sign up for online programmes or homeschooling. 

Bjorn Teunissen, the principal of Redwood College in Durban, said out of 180 learners, 50 had left the school. 

Last week, Redwood College had to lay off 13 staff members. 

“Unfortunately the perception that all private or independent schools make enormous profits and have large bank balances is certainly not the case as we negotiate our way through these extremely trying times,” Teunissen said, adding that the school was thankful to loyal parents who have continued to pay school fees, which enabled the school to keep its doors opened. 

The national representative for the South African Montessori Association (Sama), Natalie Gross, said three Montessori schools have reported that they will be closing down permanently.

Sama, which is a member of Naisa, has 189 schools under it. 

“Every school has reported that parents have given notice and have stopped paying fees,” she said. “Schools have had between 5% to 50% of their parents leaving and no longer paying fees.”

Gross said 60% of the schools under Sama had reported that they were functioning from “hand to mouth”. 

Independent schools have had to retrench staff members and some have had to cut salaries. The schools that offer extra activities such as sport and music lessons have also had to let go of those staff members because they could no longer afford to pay them. 

Sheri Palmer, of the Academy of Christian Excellence in Amanzimtoti in Durban, said the school retrenched 33% of its staff and reduced the salaries of those left by 50%. She said the situation was so dire that the school was battling to pay rent. 

Zami Dlomo, of Ulundu Pomeroy Christian School in KwaZulu-Natal, said the staff members last received the salaries in April. 

Employees at the Christian Life Academy in Pietermaritzburg have also not received their salaries since April. Principal Eric Khumalo said the school has failed to pay its monthly electricity and water bill. In July the school received only 6% of its school fees. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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