As a parent, you want the best for your child – that’s no secret. You want to ensure they have a bright future ahead of them. But for that to be a realistic and achievable goal, you need to lay a strong foundation and search for opportunities to help them reach their full potential. An essential building block for this is education, of course. And when it comes to seeking the best learning institution for your child, you, if your financial situation allows, are likely to be looking at enrolling them at a prestigious private school. But because placement at these schools is so in demand, some places use that as a way to justify charging non-refundable acceptance deposits, which don’t ultimately go toward the school fees bill. Many parents have complained about this practice, and wondering whether a blanket “no refund” policy is even legal.

Let’s start with some context: what is the difference between public and private schools?

Public schools in South Africa are run and funded by the Government, while private schools are independent entities that are supported in various ways – such as donors and alumni. But a large chunk of the funding comes from the expensive fees parents pay, whether it’s the school fees, placement fees or, in this case, non-refundable acceptance fees.

So, what is this “acceptance deposit” all about?

Over the last few months, many parents have spoken out on a social media about private schools charging an acceptance deposit, to secure their child’ spot. Yes, parents are charged for their child being accepted to study at the school. According to various private learning institutions, it is a way to deter parents from applying to multiple schools and cancelling without proper notice. The amount does not eventually go towards paying for the child’s school fees, and it was “non-refundable” should they opt for a different school. And we’re not talking about small change here: some of the so-called acceptance deposit amounts can be anything from R4 000 to R40 000, depending on the school and the grade.

So, are the private school’s charging a non-refundable “acceptance deposit” breaking the law?

To put it simply, yes! “ The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) protects the parents as consumers,” says Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, LAW FOR ALL’s Managing Director. “ This means that consumer rights regarding deposits, as stipulated in the CPA, will apply to the situation.”

In a nutshell, this “acceptance deposit” could be considered as an advance booking, and consumers, by law, may cancel advance bookings and be refunded what they paid, minus a “reasonable” cancellation penalty.

Some schools have tried to justify keeping the full amount as a reasonable cancellation penalty by stating that it disqualified another pupil from having the spot in a school that has limited space and that there were high administrative costs that need to be covered.  However, as Nagtegaal points out: “ This wouldn’t necessarily be a solid case from the school’s side. If there is such high demand for placement in the school, they shouldn’t have trouble finding a replacement pupil. That is an important consideration, as the school would need to show that they have incurred damages.”

It could also be argued that these non-refundable deposits are streams of income referred to “unjust enrichment”.  The school would have to prove exactly why they are keeping the money.

What are my legal options if I find out about a private school’s non-refundable acceptance deposit after paying it?

To be clear, not all private schools charge this controversial acceptance fee, but is it definitely something to aware of.  Of course, if you do find yourself in this unfortunate situation and the school refuses to abide by the CPA, you can turn to the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO). The CGSO “enforces the Consumer Goods and Services Industry Code of Conduct by receiving and dealing with consumer goods complaints by a consumer free of charge and investigating alleged contraventions.”

How do I lodge a complaint with the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud?

Before you seek the legal of the CGSO, your first step must be to try and resolve the complaint with the school first.

If that fails, you can refer the matter to the CGSO.

  • Start by calling the CGSO’s call centre (0860 000 272). They will capture the complaint and refer it to the supplier or business, or
  • Fill in and submit the online complaint form.
  • The complaint must be referred in accordance with the participant’s internal complaints handling process.
  • Be sure to approach them within 36 months of becoming aware of the issue you are trying to resolve.

If the CGSO cannot resolve the matter directly with the school, it will refer the case to the Ombudsman. At this stage, the parties involved (the parent and the school) will go through mediation, with the hopes of settling on an agreement. Should that fail, the matter will be referred to the National Consumer Commission (NCC).

Focusing on your child’s future

While of course you certainly want nothing but the best for your child, it’s important to remember that private schools aren’t the only institutions that provide top-quality education in South Africa.  Not to mention, the vast majority of people cannot afford private school, so don’t think you are bad parent if it’s not possible.

We’ve Got Your Back!

While the CGSO doesn’t directly deal with lawyers, we can certainly guide you through the complaints process and offer valuable legal advice. For more information on how LAW FOR ALL can become your friend in times of need and help you navigate life have a look at our policies here.