Escalating school fees pose dilemma for parents

Sheetal Bhoola.

Sheetal Bhoola.

Published Feb 5, 2024



As a new year begins, parents assess and question the costs of schooling and other educational activities. The typical South African family, especially those comprising two or more children, are spending a lot more on school fees than they did in the past.

There has been a recorded 2.6% inflation rate since 2012 within the education sector, exceeding the other necessities.

This is alarming in a country where the Constitution is a cornerstone to promoting, protecting and monitoring South African Human Rights. Section 29(1) of our constitution highlights the obligation of the government to make education available and accessible to everyone. Every South African is entitled to a basic education, a right rooted in the Freedom Charter which stated that the “doors of learning and culture should be open”.

However, the scope and content of this right are blurred. This is evident as we see South Africans willing to pay more and more for a better or more ;comprehensive; education for their children, either by sending them to private schools or for additional tuition. This pattern of behaviour has become almost a norm in the middle to upper-class communities in South Africa, while the working class and lower-income groups send their children to government schools that are often deemed to have inadequate resources, skills and infrastructure.

The fact that many government schools are under-resourced and overcrowded pushes parents to send their children to fee-paying schools. In addition, the fees are continually escalating, despite a declining economy, low salary increases and high food inflation.

The second annual DebtBusters Money-Stress Tracker survey completed in 2023 recorded that school fees were a top money-stress factor for South Africans. In addition, parents were not always aware of the differences between the various types of schooling. Homeschooling, as a practice in South Africa, is increasingly becoming an option for South Africans.

However, it does have the capacity to hinder holistic development within a child. The child is often isolated from other children and, therefore, may not develop adequate communication skills and may lack the capacity to become part of a team when need be. In addition, to the lack of social and cultural intervention in the child’s schooling career, the effectiveness of home schooling is often dependent on the educator or parent’s teaching competence and capacities. Some South Africans argue that this learning approach is for the elite as they have the means to live off a one-parent income or and employ an experienced educator.

The schools that are ranked quintiles one, two and three are declared no-fee schools and are solely dependent on government funding. Quintile four and five schools are also state funded, but are co-funded by parents through tuition fees and fund-raising initiatives. They are managed by an elective governing body that comprises parents and can allocate teaching staff and resources required for the successful functioning of the school. The schools were referred to as model C types.

Private schools, on the other hand, are funded by the income the school independently generates and becomes legible for a subsidy only after the first year of operation. Most of the schools rarely have to engage in additional fund-raising initiatives as their tuition fees are exorbitant. Hilton College, for instance, is one of the most expensive schools in KwaZulu-Natal and its annual tuition is priced at just under R400 000 a year.

This includes boarding as well. Reddam House, in comparison, charges just over R130 000 for tuition in Grade 1. As the grades progress, so do the tuition fees increase.

Quintile four and five schools and private schools offer children vast choices of extra-mural activities in comparison to schools ranked quintile three and below. Some activities on offer at private schools include horse riding, surfing and water polo. The pupils also have an opportunity to study international languages such as French and can opt to learn to play a musical instrument.

The need to compare and understand the differences between the various schooling options in South Africa is continual, and ultimately, parents seek to give children the best they can afford. Many parents select schools based on their affordability factor only and fail to make appropriate enquiries before enrolling their child at a particular school.

A parent should always enquire about the experience and educational background of the teachers at the school and about the school motto. They should question whether the focus of the school is holistic (inclusive of sport and culture) or purely academic. If the child is not inclined to engage in cultural or sporting activities, sending your child to a school that prioritises those activities may not be appropriate. There are schools that choose to solely prioritise academic learning and engagement.

There are many perceptions of private and semi-private schools in South Africa. Some are accurate and others are false. A common perception is that children attending the schools are often spoon-fed, which can hinder the development of a child’s personal and independent work ethic, a skill required lifelong for success. Central to a child’s comfort and capacity to be at their best in a school is their ability to be at ease, to communicate with their peers and teachers with ease, and to display confidence in themselves. Therefore, one has to assess the school environment carefully before enrolling one’s child.

Rather than relying on other parents’ perceptions and experiences, it is advisable that parents initiate enquiries themselves and then attempt to determine an appropriate school for their child. Parents, especially those who have the means to choose, should know their child’s preferences and personality and determine if the school’s organisational culture can develop their child further.

After all, the purpose of the school is to develop your child intellectually, emotionally and physically so that their potential to be active citizens contributing meaningfully to society can be realised.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola has a PhD and two MA degrees in social sciences. She has been the recipient of awards and scholarships. She is a lecturer and researcher at The University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths South Africa. Visit

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