6693 Matric students at New Nation school in Vredehoek, Johannesburg prepare to start writing their final matric exams. 271008 - Picture: Jennifer Bruce

Durban - Well-to-do parents are exploiting a “flaw” in a government policy intended to help financially disadvantaged and stressed households, to have school fees partly or completely written off, school governing body associations have warned.

While increasing numbers of hard-up parents are applying for fee exemptions because of tough economic times, some wealthier families are using the legislation to gain access to top public schools and skimp on cost.

This is because the formula by which exemptions are calculated has translated into a situation in which the higher the school fees the higher the income of those claiming exemptions can be.

In practice this means that, using the formula, parents with an income of R500 000 a year, who pay R35 000 in schools fees for one child, qualify for a 79 percent discount.

Exemptions are determined by calculating the school fees as a proportion of parent income.

However, the intention of the exemption policy was never to make it easy for middle-class earners to wriggle out of their responsibilities, but rather to help the poor afford a good education.

For example, parents whose annual income is R20 000, and who have one child enrolled at a school where the cost is R3 000 a year, can get a full exemption.

The Governing Body Foundation, a national association of school governing bodies, has now proposed that the income threshold that qualifies parents for exemption be capped.

Tim Gordon, of the foundation, said part of schools’ strategy was to persuade parents that, although they qualified for a fee exemption, they should, on a moral basis, not apply for it.

“What should happen, we believe, is… legal powers should be put in place as part of the regulations – rather than forcing schools to rely on the persuasive powers of the principal, governors or the fees administrator,” he said.

The foundation’s members granted exemptions worth more than R1 million last year.

As of last year, the government began reimbursing schools for these lost fees. But Gordon said that in provinces where this compensation was paid out, it amounted to less than 4 percent of the value of exemptions granted.

He recalled an instance in which parents with a gross income of R467 000 applied for an exemption when school fees for their one child totalled R20 000.

He suggested the policy could be amended to read: “Parents whose gross annual income level exceeds the following limits shall not qualify for fee exemptions, regardless of the fees charged: R250 000 per annum where the family has one child attending a fee-paying school, R275 000 per annum where there are two such children, R300 000 per annum where there are three such children, etc.”

Gordon said: “Despite this, there are parents who take their moral obligation to pay very seriously. There are a great number of people who are not applying for exemptions, who could.”

Another association, the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, has warned that the “flaw in the existing system” could lead to a vicious cycle which would see schools continually raising fees to compensate for shrinking budgets. Paul Colditz, the head of the federation, said the law stipulated that the only criterion for exemption was the financial ability of parents to afford the fees – not whether the child was academically deserving or where the family lived.

“Parents who would not have qualified for an exemption at schools with lower fees are qualifying for partial or full exemptions at more expensive schools. Our advice to schools is to keep their fees as low as possible. It becomes a vicious cycle. It is the risk that schools run. Capping the income level threshold could be a solution,” Colditz said. - The Mercury