The notion that sending your children to a government school is “free” is a persistent myth.
As parents well know, families are asked to spend increasing amounts on their children’s education, forking out on digital devices such as iPads, textbooks, stationery, school uniforms, sports days, elective subjects, camps and excursions.
These costs have increased by at least a third over recent years. And the cost burden isn’t helped by the Federal Governments recent axing of the Schoolkids Bonus.
If parents don’t pay these fees their children are often barred from full participation in school activities. They can miss out on important development opportunities and may be excluded from their friends and peers.
So what fees are schools allowed to charge?
Victorian legislation states schools must not charge to teach the standard school curriculum. That is the eight core subjects: arts, English, health and psychical education, languages other than English, maths, science, studies of society, environment and technology.
However, schools can (and do) request payments from families for things like textbooks, stationery and student ID cards, and activities all students are expected to attend such as camps and excursions. Schools can also charge for ‘optional’ activities or items, such as music lessons and class photos, and can seek voluntary school donations.
These charges are known as school-level parent payments. Schools are responsible for developing their own parent payment policies (based on government guidelines). VCOSS members have previously identified substantial problems with how these payments are calculated and communicated.
In 2015, a damning Auditor General’s report also found some parents were being charged for items that should have been free, such as class sets of text books, first aid nurses and grounds maintenance. It concluded payment requests lacked transparency, with some school invoices using vague descriptions like “curriculum contribution” or “classroom consumables”.
A survey of 366 schools founds 30% either didn’t have a formal payment policy, or the one they did have was in breach of department’s guidelines. None of them had a financial hardship policy to help struggling families.
To its credit, the Victorian Government has reviewed and revised its parent payment policy (which schools are required to implement from this school year).
The new policy:
- GIVES families and schools greater clarity about what they can charge.
- INSTRUCTS schools how to better support families experiencing financial hardship.
- CLARIFIES that schools can’t charge extra to teach senior students VCAL subjects
- SUPPORTS schools to better communicate their payment structures.
Importantly, it also emphasises that students must not be penalised when payments aren’t made. “Students are not to be denied access to the standard curriculum program, refused instruction or disadvantaged,” the policy reads. If you feel this is happening to your child you should contact your school immediately.
Unfortunately, the new policy doesn’t fix all the problems.
Schools are still able to determine what items are considered “essential” to student learning, and can still send parents monthly payment reminders, potentially causing undue stress.
The new policy also fails to address the underlying issue that school funding should be adequate to deliver the standard curriculum program for free.
VCOSS is firmly of the view that the Department of Education needs to regularly monitor the rollout of this new regime, and act quickly if breaches or sloppy practices are identified.
Monitoring should also be used to identify systemic issues, so these can be resolved quickly.
No child should have to miss out on a quality education because of their family’s finances, and no parent should be made to feel guilty if they can’t afford to pay.
Hundreds of families complain about state school payments, many citing rising costs https://t.co/J7512XOh23
— Timna Jacks (@TimnaJacks) September 19, 2016
Banner image: marco antonio torres (Flickr/CC)