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Education Policy: School Fees

Education is a basic right. Section 29 (1) (a) of the South African Constitution states that "everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education". Through the South African Schools Act of 1996, the national Department of Education has made educational attendance compulsory for all children aged seven to 15 (or the completion of Grade 9). Compulsory education places a responsibility not only on parents or caregivers to send their children to school, but also on the State to ensure that schools are accessible and affordable.

In South Africa, where the majority of children live in poverty, lack of money can be a barrier to schooling. This guide discusses two government policies designed to make education affordable to poor children. These are the School Fee Exemption policy and the No-fee Schools policy. Children at schools in poor areas are also able to access the National School Nutrition Programme (see Toolbox: Government programmes and policies: School feeding schemes)

What is in this guide?

  1. What is the School Fee Exemption policy?
  2. What are no-fee schools?
  3. How widely has the School Fee Exemption policy been implemented?
  4. How to calculate total or partial exemption from school fees.
  5. Who is excluded from the School Fee Exemption and the No-fee Schools policies?

    1. What is the School Fee Exemption policy?

    Education is funded from the government budget and is supplemented through school fees and/or school fundraising. The South African Schools Act of 1996 allows for learners from poor families to be exempted from paying school fees.

    The School Fee Exemption policy says that each school, through its school governing body (SGB), must determine fees and inform parents and caregivers about the exemption policy. The Exemption of Parents from the Payment of School Fees Regulations of 1998 sets out a means (income) test for the granting of exemptions. The means test read as follows: "If the combined annual gross income of the parents is less than ten times the annual school fees per leaner, the parent qualifies for full exemption." Partial exemptions were available for those whose income was more than ten times but less than thirty times the annual fees.

    Eligibility for full and partial school fee exemptions is worked out on the basis of parental income in relation to the fees.

    Regulations released in October 2006 added a new formula to take into account the number of school-going children supported by a caregiver, and provides clear guidelines for working out the amount of partial exemptions. Certain categories of children are now automatically exempt from paying fees. These include Child Support Grant beneficiaries and children in foster care.

    1. What are no-fee schools?

    No-fee schools were introduced in 2007 and are being expanded over the next few years to include the poorest 60% of schools. Schools have been ranked into five categories. The schools in the lowest 40% (quintiles 1 and 2) were deemed poor and allow learners to enrol without paying fees. In return, government funds expenses that were previously covered by fees.

    The No-fee Schools policy abolishes school fees in the poorest 40% of schools nationally for learners from Grade R to Grade 9. Schools that do not charge fees will be allocated a larger amount of funding from the national budget per learner to make up for the fees that would have been charged. Children in high schools will not benefit from the no-fee policy.

    The No-Fee policy uses ranks schools according to the level of poverty in the surrounding area. This means that poor children who go to school in wards that are not rated amongst the poorest, will attend fee-paying schools. The national list of no-fee schools for 2009 was gazetted on 17 October 2008 and can be found at,

    1. How widely has the School Fee Exemption policy been implemented?

    As from 2009 the percentage of children in no-fee schools will be increased from the current 40% of learners to 60% over the next few years according to the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS).

    The MTBPS said there was a gross enrolment ratio of 98% in SA in 2007 for children of school-going age, and the expansion of no-fee schools would be done to ensure that this trend continued.

    In the 2008 school year, provinces spent just under R3,5bn to ensure that about 5 million learners in 14 264 schools benefited from this programme. The majority of these learners are in Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo.

    1. Total or partial exemption from school fees

    The law says the following families can qualify for a total or partial exemption from school fees:

    1. Where the breadwinner's annual salary is less than ten times the amount of the school fee.

    So for example, if a parent is a domestic worker who earns R800 per month then she will earn R9 600 per year. If the school fees are R1000 per year, then ten times the school fees is R10 000, this is more than the domestic worker earns in a year. She is therefore entitled to an exemption or a reduction in fees.

    1. Where the combined income of the mother and father is less than 30 times the annual school fee.

    For example if the joint income of the mother and father is R1 500 per month and the annual school fee is R700 per year:
    12 x R1500 = R 18 000 per year
    30 x the school fees of R700 = R 21 000
    Because their total income is less than 30 x the fees they will qualify for a partial reduction of fees.

    To apply for a reduction in fees, the parent must do the following:

    • Write a letter to the School Governing Body requesting to be exempted in part or totally from fees.
    • Provide a pay slip or letter from the employer explaining how much the parent earns.
    • If the parent is unemployed, or self employed, they should make an affidavit saying what they earn or how they support the child, for example, on a pension or a child care grant.
    1. Who is excluded from the School Fee Exemption and the No-fee Schools policies?

    Children not at school

    Of course, the no-fee and fee exemption policies are only available to those children who are actually attending school.

    Older learners

    The No-fee Schools policy will apply only to learners from Grade R to Grade 9, while those in Grades 10 to 12 will continue to pay fees, even if they live in the poorest intake areas. Statistics from the General Household Survey 2005 show that children's attendance rates at educational institutions are very high - around 98% for all ages between eight and 14 years. However, from age 15 onwards, children's attendance rates drop dramatically, reaching a low of 85% at 17 years.

    Clearly, cost is one of the main obstacles to completing secondary education. Fifty percent of all reasons for non-attendance relate to the cost of schooling or the need to work - either in a job or in the home. This suggests that a combination of abolishing school fees for poor children as well as income support for children over 14 years could reduce by up to half the number of all teenagers who quit school.

    Although education in South Africa is compulsory only up to Grade 9 or 15 years, there are many social and economic reasons why it is desirable for children to complete their schooling. Whether they drop out in high school due to higher costs, or are too young to go to school, or live in areas where schools don't operate as they should, children who do not have access to school also lose their access to government programmes that are implemented through schools - such as the National School Nutrition Programme.


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