Namibia: Schools Exploit Loopholes to Charge Parents

18 September 2019

Some schools are forcing parents and guardians to contribute to their children's school development funds, The Namibian has learnt.

This is despite amendments to the Education Act of 2001, which abolished compulsory school fees and the payment of contributions to schools.

This was brought to light by parents of pupils at Windhoek High School (WHS), who claim that their children have been excluded from certain activities as a result of their inability to contribute to a trust fund.

The parents claimed the school operates a 'Parents Trust Fund' into which contributions are supposed to be made voluntarily, but the school allegedly makes the contributions compulsory.

Parents who cannot pay must apply for an exemption, but they claim that more often than not, applications for exemption are rejected, despite a demonstrated need for exemptions.

"Some of us went through this requirement, and offered to voluntarily contribute what we could afford to meet the government halfway, but our applications were declined," they explained.

Parents in arrears have been receiving statements from the school, and demands for them to pay up.

In 2017, the ministry of education amended the Education Act to remove the requirement for compulsory contributions to school development funds; in essence providing free pre-primary, primary, secondary and special education.

The Namibian has previously reported that while parents were encouraged to make financial contributions to schools, the act states that pupils should not be victimised, deprived of their school report cards, or be excluded from various school programmes because their parents cannot afford contributions.

The parents claimed WHS had excluded a number of pupils from the matric farewell event this year as a result of non-payments into the development fund.

"Out of the 230 pupils enrolled in the Grade 12 class, only 70 qualified to attend the matric farewell event," the parents added.

They were apparently informed that the school board had received approval from the ministry to operate the trust fund through forced contributions.

WHS's financial secretary, Marlize Schrader, told The Namibian that contributions were not compulsory.

She, however, directed further questions on the issue to the line ministry, stating that the system used at the school had been approved by the ministry.

Responding to questions from The Namibian, Khomas regional director of education Gerard Vries said schools are within their purview to request voluntary contributions towards the maintenance and upkeep of the institutions.

He explained that schools typically determine the contributions collectively during parents/teachers meetings, and that a majority vote can bind those parents who are absent during the decision-making process of those stipulations.

Regarding contributions for matric farewell participation, Vries referred to a letter from the Office of the Ombudsman, which concluded that schools are still within the law when they solicit contributions for such events.

The letter, written by children's advocate from the Office of the Ombudsman Ingrid Husselman, was directed to the ministry's executive director, Sanet Steenkamp.

It explained the Education Act's stipulation that the school development fund be used exclusively for educational, sport and cultural events. Husselman detailed that the law states that the school development fund is aimed at providing and developing activities, and allows schools to use the fund for cultural activities which cannot reasonably be provided for by the state.

Matric farewell events, therefore, fall within the scope of this fund, Husselman added.

"It is undeniable that matric farewell functions form an integral part of Namibian high school culture. Since contributions to the school development fund are voluntary, and there are no guidelines as to how much should be contributed by each parent, the school board is often left without recourse but to request further contributions from the parents of the pupils who are to attend the function", she noted.

Husselman said the action by WHS to solicit contributions from parents to finance the matric farewell does not violate any human or children's rights. Furthermore, she deduced that it would be unfair and discriminatory to expect the contributions made to the fund by some pupils to cover the costs of activities of those who made no contributions to the event.

However, this exclusion from participating in this cultural right of passage is not the only form of victimisation experienced by pupils.

At WHS, parents also cited the withholding of report cards; while in the Kavango East region, there has been a report of children being turned away from school altogether for not paying contributions.

An SMS appeared in Monday's edition of The Namibian, stating that the Kaisosi Combined School at Rundu was sending children away because of unpaid "school fees".

Kavango East regional director of education Fanuel Kapapero expressed surprise, and stated that his office was gathering more information regarding the matter.

"We forwarded this [information] to the principal, and we are trying to understand from inspectors what is transpiring," he told The Namibian. "No principal is supposed to send back any pupil."

In a separate response, Vries also reiterated that public schools are not allowed to withhold report cards from pupils as leverage to secure outstanding fees.

In 2017, The Namibian reported on similar incidents in which schools withheld children's reports because parents had not paid their pledges for voluntary contributions.

That occurrence was chalked up to a misunderstanding between parents and school management.

Prior to its enactment, former education minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa had suggested that the legislation would criminalise the withholding of report cards or results because of non-payment of contributions; and would punish those principals and teachers found to be in contravention of the act.

Thus far, not a single institution or educational practitioner has been brought to book over these issues.

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