It’s becoming a costly affair to send our children to school

It’s becoming a costly affair to send our children to school

School fees is just one part of sending your child to school says Terence Pillay. The secondary costs are stinging parent’s pockets. 

Elementary school kids raising hands to teacher, back view

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For example, a friend’s child has done exceptionally well, academically, at school, so the school decided to hold a special evening where they hand out these merit awards to the children that have excelled. But here’s the catch – in order to come in and watch your child get this award, you need to buy a ticket for R200. So my friends had asked what this money will be used for and they won't give them an answer.

It’s not some gala dinner or anything; you literally walk into the hall, sit down and watch your child get the award. I find that unconscionable, especially since you’re paying school fees, and you pay for everything like extracurricular activities separately. If the child wants to do ballet, that's a separate bill, if the child wants to do choir, it's a separate bill, or recorder, or whatever the case may be. And now this child has done really well at school and they’re rewarding the child, which is a good thing, but charging R200 per person to go and watch this? That’s not acceptable!


And this is just one example of something you have no choice but to fork out money for.  It’s not like school fees are cheap. It’s even more so when you have two or more children going to school.  I said to my friends that if they couldn’t afford it, just simply say so. You say to the school, I can't afford to pay the R200, but I'm coming to see my child get the award anyway. What are you going to do to stop me?


I understand that schools are under pressure, and they're trying to provide the best possible educational experience for children and sometimes the subsidy that’s there from government isn't enough. And so they do need to find ways to raise additional funds in order to be able to employ more teachers, to provide the activities, maybe they want to introduce new extracurricular activities besides the ones that you have to pay for.


I can even understand extracurricular activities. If your child wants to take dance, and they offer it as an extracurricular, you must pay for it; that doesn't happen for free. But I think like things like constantly asking your kids to pay for every single thing is a bit much. These days they have to take money to school every day for something or the other. This is happening at public schools, but, for example, the high-end private schools it’s a different matter altogether. They simply send you a letter that says, “Your child is going to go on into an international tour of France, and therefore you must pay”.


I was chatting to a friend of mine, whose kids are in an expensive private school and they apparently even offer extra tuition at no charge, because the teachers are residents at the school, And so up to eight o'clock at night, your child can go to that teacher for extra tuition. But that's a private school. I'm talking about the general masses who can’t afford this kind of luxury.


At present we have something called the quintile system at government schools – quintile meaning five. They divide the schools into quintiles based on a variety of socio economic indicators. And those could include things like is the school an area which has running water, roads, and electricity? It also looks at the unemployment rate of the people in the community, and all those kinds of things. And then they are ranked as quintile one, two three, four or five with quintile five being the better resourced, socio economically better, more advantaged community, and they receive a lowest subsidy.


Quintile one refers to the poorest communities and they get the highest subsidy from government, but are classified as no fee schools; basically you don't have to pay fees to go to school there but they would they still have to pay for the extramural things that children would have to do.  There's nothing fair about it. We live in a world which has two education systems, one for the rich and one for the poor.


The poor can't afford anything. So they get a basic level of education. And obviously there are exceptions; you get quintile one schools, which are low fee schools, which are performing exceptionally well, academically. But that's usually against the odds. They don’t have the luxury of saying, “I need to employ an extra math teacher so that I can reduce my class size, so that I can give better attention to the children or I can differentiate my instruction so that I can do a remedial math class”. There is no opportunity for that because you got your basic government allocation of teachers, which is the bare minimum. And the learner to teacher ratio is one to thirty four, or something.


So why are we not addressing this disparity? If you look at the proportions across the whole system, the largest number of learners comes from the poorest schools. So they should get more money and if they do get more money, then they would be able to employ more teachers, but they don't.


The subsidies that schools get cover only the non salary costs; the salary costs are paid by the Department of Education.  They get an allocation which is called a post provisioning norm. This is based on the number of learners enrolled in your school and the subjects you offer. So you get x number of teachers for the subjects that you offer and these salaries are paid by the Department of Education. 


The subsidies that the schools get are used for things like water, electricity, telephones, and stationery; although in some cases stationery and textbooks are provided.  Government should really be absorbing the cost of water and electricity because those are state owned enterprises anyway and I’m sure they get the usual sort of free applications, but they still have to pay enough to cover services.


And so people make a choice. They say, “I’m going to try and see if I can get my child into the best school because I know, they’re going to get a better quality of education”. But then of course, you have to pay. In order to provide free equal education, it's going to cost money. If every school was at the standard in terms of infrastructure, and number of teachers and all the other things that you need to run a good school it would cost a lot of money. In fact already 6.6% of our GDP should be spent on education. So it's a bugbear for many, as a parent, or a family member constantly having to pay. And I think that's just the burden of the middle class. In order to deal with government inefficiency, we pay product providers. You pay for private medical care, private security, and so on. You pay for everything.


I just think this whole thing with being a parent is so difficult financially. In this country it is especially so if you want your child to have some kind of quality education.  And on top of that, if a child is playing four different sports there are four different uniforms for that and it all costs money.  And you can’t avoid it; obviously you want your child to have a well rounded education and experience. But how is that going to happen if you can’t afford it?

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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