School Governance has published a series of articles over the years regarding non-payment of school fees, commencing in 2015 with"School bankrupting parents over unpaid school fees".
This was followed in mid-2017 with “How do you deal with parents who will not pay school fees?".
Then in early 2019 we published"Students who are MIA at the start of the school year"
A common theme of these articles was addressing the question of the effect that unpaid school fees have on a school where the school has contractual obligations to care for and educate the child. It is crucial to recognise that, regardless of whether fees are being paid, if the child is in attendance, the school owes the child a duty of care. That duty is not diminished by a failure of the child’s parents or carers to pay the fees.
As we have noted in our previous articles, there are many reasons why families do not pay their school fees. They include financial pressures and relationships among split families where, for example, one of the child’s carers does not make their payments, or withdraws the child from school without notice, so that the child is missing in attendance (MIA).
We are now seeing that some families who owe fees are prepared to share their issues with the media. Schools need to consider carefully how to manage the risk of a matter that they are obliged to treat as private potentially suddenly becoming very public. A badly-managed public spat over unpaid fees could be more damaging than the recoup of the fees in contention.
However, we are not advocating that schools write off a debt just because it is being discussed in a public forum. In 2014 we wrote in relation to complaints generally and poor complaints handling processes:
“On a slow news day you might even find your school the subject of unwanted media attention. This will invariably lead to reputational damage and loss of productivity as executive staff are called in to fight the fire. A fire that could easily have been avoided if only the complaint had been heard and managed properly in the first place.”
This approach is also appropriate in connection with families who are tardy with fee payments. Schools generally should try to manage the situation first, before it grows out of proportion.
Often, families who are experiencing financial stress are encouraged to meet with the school principal or business manager to discuss their situation and to make alternative arrangements for fees to be paid, ensuring that their child/children can continue to attend the school.
Non-government schools offer a range of strategies for families who have legitimate reasons for being unable to pay their school fees. These include deferment of the fees for an agreed period, fee remission programs, bursaries, reduced payments over time and even, in extreme cases, writing-off the fees for a semester or a year. Schools that choose to offer any form of fee instalment arrangement must ensure that they enter into a new contract with the parents and that the contract complies with the National Credit Code.
Schools do not want to lose students, even if they have waiting lists, because they know that the disruption of a change of school for the affected children can be quite severe. In addition, there is a sense of genuine loss for schools when children do not return. However, given the prevalence of the non-payment of fees in non-government schools, it needs to be recognised as a financial and reputational risk that requires strategic planning, budgeting and careful development of enrolment contracts.
In 2009, David Ford of Emil Ford & Co prepared an invaluable resource for schools in “The Enrolment Contract” that he updated in 2018. Ford argues that the enrolment contract is a crucial document that ensures that schools and families clearly understand their responsibilities and accountability regarding the enrolment of a child into the school. A failure to get it right at the get-go could result in problems down the track if fees were not being paid.
A recent Supreme Court case in South Australia highlights, yet again, that a failure to get an enrolment contract right can cost a school far more that the fees that they are trying to recoup. Paul O’Halloran, of Colin Biggers & Paisley Lawyers has written a very sensible reminder (read this as warning) to schools, on the basis of the ruling, to get their enrolment contracts right or be prepared to deal retrospectively with this risk.
In this case, the school was unable to recover almost $20,000 in unpaid tuition fees. O’Halloran notes that this was “because the original enrolment contract signed by the parents in 2009 contained the following deficiencies:
- it did not make it clear that the relationship between the school and the parents was an ongoing one;
- it did not expressly state that the contract would continue in force beyond the end of each school year unless subsequent steps were taken;
- it indicated that school fees would be reviewed each year, which was suggestive of a series of annual contracts, rather than one underlying contract.”
O’Halloran’s opening statement could not be more clear:
“The enrolment contract between the school and parents is a legally binding document. In the event of disputes, such as unpaid fees, the enrolment contract will be the basis of any fee recovery action. It is therefore critically important that its terms clearly outline the relationship between the school and the student’s parents or guardian. Unfortunately, many enrolment contracts we see schools using are outdated, inadequate, and in some cases contain unlawful terms.”
Ford’s paper begins with a similar statement:
“The enrolment contract is the fundamental source of the obligations that a school has to its parents and that they have to the school. Accordingly, it is vital to ensure that:
- the contract is only entered into when the school has decided that it has the resources to provide its educational offering to the student and that the parents have the resources to pay for that service; and
- the contract includes appropriate and necessary terms.”
One very clear way to mitigate the financial, legal and reputational risks associated with possible late or non-payers of school fees is to have a clear and fair enrolment policy and enrolment contract. Note that the enrolment contract is a separate document from the enrolment application form. The application is simply that-an application to attend the school. It is not a binding contract.
In very broad terms, in addition to addressing crucial matters such as consent in a privacy context, a parent code of conduct, school discipline rules, and work, health and safety matters, enrolment contracts should determine the length of time of the contract, who will pay the fees and what will happen if default occurs.
Many schools enrol more than 100 new students each year. Even smaller schools will enrol at least one cohort into Kindergarten or Year 7. Schools should not leave anything to chance. Schools are encouraged to have their enrolment contracts vetted and updated by legal advisers on an annual basis.