Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?

Here are thoughts on the issue of the student not getting the original PSLE results over unpaid fees, which has gone viral online and MOE has officially responded.

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.


Yee Jenn Jong

* The author is a former NCMP of the Workers Party and blogs at https://yeejj.wordpress.com/.




15 Responses to “Unpaid school fees – What are the teachable moments?”

  • Ministry of Evildoers:

    Hello, education provider us to teach knowledge and values to children , not to act like thugs to collect recover first.

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  • The Same Stale Excuses:

    As expected, read more about the hurdles to qualify for aid, check and read more from the online citizen site about this issue.

    So MOE’s talking and showing (Wayang) are miles away from Doing (Reality).

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  • Serve with sincerity and humi:

    Wow, wow, so defensive and suspicious just like that Lam Parmin when asked questions on pmd.

    Isn’t it the role and duties of educators to provide answers or explanations even if the questions sound silly or awkward? Yes, to teach, not threaten lah.

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  • "faith-based":

    The difference is,
    1) the faith-based school believed in some spiritual/religious world.
    2) this “faith-based” MOE worships money. No money no talk. O$P$

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  • oxygen:

    @ YJJ

    GOOD SHARING. For those who have traveled/visited and interact with students or families in rural campuses in “wealthy” China, you will discover these

    - thousands of students shared oft broken down computers in University computer labs whilst those from aristocrat class carry laptops around and 24/7 dorm internet access.

    - lecturers teach the same topics and depth using internet resources of his/her access.

    - examination questions and assessment standards are THE SAME AND CORRECTLY SO.

    KIDS FROM PEASANT CLASS fill the result score at the bottom of the class lists.

    THEY HAVE NO CHANCE ON CAMPUS, what chances they got outside if they survive to graduation.


    Some compromises have to be made of small fees is my thoughts even if mandatory. It is not a crime to be born poor and be punished for life for that for all efforts exerted.

    Raised the small fees and give waivers for the poor might be the way forward.

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  • TruBlu:

    Rule of $inking-POOR GAHMEN.


    You want your kids to come to OUR $chools,make sure you WORK TILL DROP DEAD even if you have to drive taxi after losing your bank jobs to OUR FTs or even if your kids are dead,YOU OLD FOGGIES have to GO COLLECT MORE CARDBOARD OR CLEAN TOILETS AT THE JEWEL IN order that MORE FTs COULD ENJOY TOP CLASS FACILITIES AFTER GETTING OUR TOP CLA$$ JOBS.


    Even we dont care if our sg companies fail like HYFLUX except if they are TEMASICK COMPANIE$$$?



    Stoopid or what?!!!

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  • To 70% Singaporeans:

    If you still think there is no fundamental issue with PAP system, please think again.

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  • Think and vote wisely:

    Do you prefer Robinhood or PAP Ministers?
    One robs the rich to help the poor while the other ones pay themselves big fat salaries legally?
    $2 AIM company run by PAP men, Indian Malay PAP MP selected as Malay EP earning millions of $$$, PAP town councils losing millions of $$$ of investments in mini bonds (relationship between PAP MPs and the bankers), Ang Mo Kio town council corruption case (why the former GM plead not guilty, relationship between PAP and the TC management companies)

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  • No eyes see:

    Red dot is becoming more and more a sick society, mostly a playground for the elites and wealthy.

    You can see that so called public servants like to condescend and ‘lord over’ common folks just like their political masters. Wonder who they are paid to serve.

    Whatever they do is always not wrong or ineffective. They’re not happy if being questioned or challenged.

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  • Teacheable ???:

    Teacheable moment?
    The AristoCATs say – “It is a principle to be responsible . . . “
    “O $ P $” . . .
    Oops, that’s slogan for LoanSharks !
    The AristoCATs insist “Principle. . .” over “Compassion” ?
    Remember the Ballot Box !

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  • The Ministry of Elucidation:

    Borrow fake cert from your new Indian turned Singapore citizen and photocopy. It’s okay to plagerize Indian certs. Preferred by emploers. Why stress out studying?

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  • Not child fault:

    If the parent cannot pay,the outstanding fees should be waived as education is the best means to level up…it should be make easily available to every child to his full potential. Education grant to help if necessary.

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  • Lord Buddha says:

    He who is attached to 50 people has 50 woes; he who attaches to none has no woes…. Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.

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  • pap 1 law 2 interpretations:

    what are pap moe teachable moments?

    you die your business. it is long practice to withhold psle pass/fail paper if owed S$156m.

    what is none pap teachable moment?

    it is heart. rules exist to regulate behaviour. but empathy behind the beahviour counts more than S$m.

    wah. so different these teachable moments. how come?

    how come?

    in pap Singapore, the gang is such from civil serpeants to justice to parleement all play the ownself pay ownself S$m game. worse, when top is so crooked such as appointing wife to lucrative no need to account job and ownself corner spf cpib bank negara agc, the bottom all not straight.

    are we surprised? in a way yes. our surprise is how come the S$m bad habits of pap have not infected all mankind in Singapore. there are still non S$m faced humans in Singapore who look beyond S$156m owed to solve human problem behind the debt rather than just withholding PSLE pass/fail slip.

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  • Prolonged Wrong Practice:

    This is a very straight forward and simple case of abuse of power.

    In any court of law, if a child commits a mistake or an offense, it is, has been, always been the parents’ or guardians’ responsibility to shoulder the consequences.

    Such a common and well-known legal practice has been arrogantly brushed aside by the Ministry for Education (I understand that this horrendous practice has been in place since 1965) without any qualms, without any common human decency, without even to take into consideration that it is against the common practice of law!

    How the hell is it that over the last 54 years (1965-2019), when minister after minister have been taking over and handing over their responsibilities, not a single one of them had noticed it, let alone even bothered to review and stop this malpractice.

    From the way MOE replied, it is clear that up to today, MOE’s top honcho still believes that it is a normal and correct practice. As such, to all of us, the receiving end, it is clear that something is very seriously wrong with people (all or some) at the Ministry for Education (Uneducation seems to be a better word).

    A Ministry of Minister can make rules and regulations within its ministry’s purview. However, whatever rules and regulations (or in this case the unprincipled “principle”) made must be in congruent and in line with the common practice of the laws of the land, as well as the Constitution.

    In this case, it is clear that MOE has abused its power. Nothing to argue further.

    MOE has to accept its error and apologise to all those children who have suffered over the last 54 years because of horrendous unjust and unprincipled “principle”.

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