Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?


The incident reminded me of a case I took when helping at a Meet-People-Session in Aljunied GRC a few years back.

It was almost 9.30 pm then, which was the closing time for residents to register to meet the MP over issues. I had just completed a case and I was about to leave as there were no further cases needing a case writer. Then, a young lady rushed to the counter and registered. I popped over to check and decided to take her case. It turned out that she was a 2nd year diploma student at a government supported non-profit college. She had unpaid fees and was told by the college that unless she paid up, she would not get her official results and she needed the results to register for her courses for the third and final year. She was very distressed because the last date to register for her courses was like that next day or very soon after that. She was sobbing as she told her story. She is the eldest with only her uneducated mum working part time to support the family. The family was constantly in debt, borrowing from relatives. Her previous year fees had been paid by an aunt who was not able to give her another loan so soon. She worked part time but that was only enough for her own living expenses and not for her fees. She believed she would be kicked out of college because of her unpaid fees. She did not even know what her 2nd year results were because the school’s policy was that they could not release the results without payment of fees.

I happened to have a friend working in the school. I called him. He was kind enough to set up a rushed meeting the next morning with the finance manager. I called the young lady to come along. The school did not know of her financial situation. The finance manager was very kind and revealed that she had passed and may register for the third year courses and asked her to apply for a bursary. The school also gave her time to pay up for the previous fees, which she eventually borrowed from her relatives. She got a bursary for her final year of studies. As she had the relevant skills, I engaged her on a part-time basis for my art company that year as well.

She graduated, found a job in a MNC as a web designer and I last heard she was still working there. Hers is a happy story that could have turned out badly. I asked why she did not try to apply for any financial assistance before then. She said she was not aware (even though the school had schemes and were indeed kind and fast to act when her situation surfaced). It is hard to blame her as she was not yet an adult then and the family already had so much problems. Relatives were afraid of them requesting for more financial assistance. She only came to the MPS because she shared her problems at a church meeting and her friend suggested going to meet her MP, which she promptly rushed to because the MPS happened to be that evening.

Back to the MOE case. Like MOE, the college the lady was in had to have some policies over unpaid fees. So I do not fault these organisations for needing to have rules to go by. MOE said it is a teachable moment for the parents. The problem often is that when there are persistent unpaid fees, there are often some deep issues or dysfunctional family situations. I am not sure if the family would be in a good situation to talk to the child about the learning points of having to pay their dues if they had many other daily stresses or were dysfunctional. I do not know the exact situation for the PSLE student as to why financial assistance was not applied for. I know schools have lots of ways to help low income family pay for fees and even get pocket money allowances because I have been involved in helping to raise such funds for schools. The young lady I had helped could have raised her problems to the school much earlier and she would likely have gotten a bursary from day 1 but she said she was not aware of support schemes and did not know that she would have qualified.

I will end with another story. A principal of a faith-based kindergarten told me recently that she and the form teacher of a class made a surprise visit to a family whose child had not paid the third term fees nor fees for the school bus. The boy had stopped attending school without a formal withdrawal. The bus had refused to pick him as well. The purpose of the visit was to understand what happened and to try to get the child to be back so he can finished his final few weeks of preschool with friends he has made over the past couple of years before going on to primary school.

They reached the home of the family just as the father and son were stepping out. The father was apologetic and promised to pay up the fees. He thought that the school had come to chase for the debts. The school explained that they were not there for the fees as they had already asked the Board for permission to waive off the fees. They just wanted to ask the child to go back to school as they did not want him to miss out the memorable final weeks. They even asked the bus company if they could sponsor the bus trips for the final period for the family.

What are the teachable moments? It can be to tell the family and child that they need to pay for all financial obligations. It can also be to tell them that there’s grace in the society if there are truly situations that call for it. I hope the young preschool boy will grow up well and one day remember that the school he attended reached out because they did not want him to fall behind no matter what the family circumstances were; that if he is financially capable one day, he can pay it back to others.

I do not think many families like to owe money especially over education. It is embarrassing to the child. With persistent unpaid fees, there are often stories behind these which can only be known if we probe further. Probing needs time. I do not know enough of the situation with the PSLE student as to how the school may have previously reached out to the family. Teachers and principals are often stressed out because our schools run large operations and class sizes are big. There are daily fires to fight when school is operational. Digging into problems such as persistent unpaid fees and trying to resolve them require lots of time and patience. As much as there are teachable moments to the families, there are also engagement opportunities by the schools and by social welfare organisations to use these as trigger points to dig further and to help families work a way out of problems.

#Correction: The earlier post stated the Principal and Vice Principal of the faith-based kindergarten. It should be Principal and form teacher of the class the boy was in.

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