The school costs that noBody addresses

At the start of each year, getting essential school items becomes a national sport for parents and students. However, the ability to afford these essential items is decreasing, most obviously for low income families who suffered the greatest loss when the Schoolkids Bonus was phased out in July 2016. This loss of affordability throughout the community needs to be a continuing concern to everyone who thinks there needs to be a community standard of public school provision, access, equity, equality and fairness.

When the current Victorian Government won the election, it certainly acted swiftly with an encouraging range of initiatives that cover:

  • State Schools’ Relief (2016 annual report identifies that SSR dressed 38,423 students)[i];
  • Glasses for Kids (at least 30,000 Prep to Year 3 students from 250 schools in the most disadvantaged areas) [ii];
  • Doctors for Schools[iii];
  • LOOKOUT Education Support Centres[iv];
  • Camps, Sports and Excursion Fund (approx. 222,000 Victorian school students)[v];
  • School Breakfast Clubs Program (approx. 25,000 Victorian primary school students)[vi].

State Schools' Relief was founded in 1930 and commenced supporting text books last year. However, text books have been made available right from the start of public school provision when the first Minister of Public Instruction said in 1873:

Books and other requisites have, so far as was practicable, been supplied for the use of the schools; but this should not prevent parents from affording their children the advantages of books for their private use”[vii] (Minister of Public Instruction’s report 3 June 1873, p.iii).

What we do not know is how access to essential items has varied throughout the years. The public does not have much information to ascertain how accessible school supply, uniforms, text books and other essential items are today and indeed have been in the past. There is no history of school costs written up for ease of reference but we can note that the provision of text books is not a given. State Schools’ Relief offers help to eligible families in Government schools with the following items:

  • new school uniforms;
  • new school shoes;
  • new textbooks;
  • stationery, including workbooks, pencils etc;
  • graphic calculators;
  • software, including access to some educational websites[viii].

However, textbooks are only provided when schools specifically identify the need, i.e. in special circumstances. The issue is compounded by many schools not knowing or applying the parent payment policies correctly. How do we know whether or to which extent schools understand, communicate and apply the Department of Education and Training policies with equity as top priority? How schools determine provision, what is needed or not needed, models of ICT devices, style and cut of uniform, types, access to stationery etc?

It is reassuring that resources exist to help reduce the costs of some items, see for example the Ardoch Youth Foundation’s “School Costs Guide 2017: A guide for parents on how to manage and reduce school costs”[ix] and the MoneySmart website’s school cost reduction ideas [x].

Today, struggling parents have to contact their respective schools, State Schools’ Relief, The Smith Family and other NGOs to look for guidance on how they can afford to obtain these essential items.

The risk, and indeed the actuality, of kids missing out while the public is simply unaware of the scale of the problem is a failure of our current governance and accountability set up. The Education Maintenance Allowance and the Schoolkids bonus were abolished in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Parents now rely entirely on State Education Ministers to understand and address the needs of financially disadvantaged children. Beyond that it falls to NGOs and an individual charity to pick up the pieces and advocate on their behalf.

NGOs have consistently pointed to Governments shifting the costs of schooling to parents. This trend was again verified by the Victorian Auditor General’s report on the Additional School Costs for Families[xi]. The report found that the costs to parents for their children’s schooling is increasing rapidly and that the Department of Education and Training does not know how much it costs to educate a child in its own schools. Of course, school finances are much more difficult to administer and report on than we might assume and arguably more guidance is necessary. The Victorian  funding formula for public schools, the student resource package (SRP) needs to reflect the actual costs of schooling and the Department of Education and Training needs to know what costs parents face. More systemic modifications are also warranted[xii]. Regular monitoring and reporting needs to be bipartisan and timely in the following areas:

  • definition of a community standard of educational access and provision which is holistic;
  • affordability of school fees and essential items;
  • free instruction of the essential curriculum;
  • total parent fees charged (both voluntary and non-voluntary);
  • student populations affected and serviced;
  • how before and after school care fees change (fees go up and rising privatisation concerns);
  • how well the SRP reflects the actual costs of schooling a child;
  • how schools are assisted to appropriately implement existing policies;
  • outsourcing trends schools follow (school canteens, before/ after school care) and how this affects quality of the service;
  • whether individual school’s parent payment policies comply with state guidelines;
  • recommendation of how school funding and support can respond to the identified trends.

Both the “Gonski” Review (2011) and the Bracks Government Schools Funding Review (2016) have looked closely into school funding provision. Bracks found that “Schools are operating as ‘single units’ rather than as a system, and schools do not have the capacity and support to use the authority that has been devolved to them” (no date, p.4)[xiii]. This refers to schools’ ability to charge fees and monitor affordability as well. This argument is not about blaming schools, it reminds us that we should not assume schools can and will do it all without the necessary resourcing and support to make it happen.

The solution is simple and more than five years old: in December 2011 the final report of the Gonski Review panel was written. One of its recommendations was the introduction of a National Schools Resourcing Body.

Such a Body would ensure that “all recurrent funding for schooling, whether it is provided by the Australian Government or state and territory governments, be based on a new schooling resource standard”[xiv] (2011, p. xvi). Arguably this would be a Body to create and monitor big data on the affordability of schools by Australian families, especially all equity groups, and the delivery and efficiency of funding schools. So let us aspire to introduce these measures so we know noBody is left behind.

Sources

[i] http://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/parents/financial/Pages/families.... [accessed 23 March 2017]

[ii]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/educationstate/Pages/glassesforkid... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[iii]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/programs/health/Pages/doctors-seco... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[iv]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/educationstate/Pages/lookout.aspx [accessed 4 February 2017]

[v]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/programs/health/CSEF_Pol... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[vi]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/about/programs/health/Pages/breakfastclu... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[vii]http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/papers/govpub/VPARL1873No47.pdf [accessed 4 February 2017]

[viii]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/parents/financial/Pages/families.... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[ix]https://www.ardoch.org.au/publications [accessed 4 February 2017]

[x]https://www.moneysmart.gov.au/life-events-and-you/families/reducing-back... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[xi]http://www.audit.vic.gov.au/publications/20150211-School-costs/20150211-... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[xii] See also https://theconversation.com/why-education-departments-should-be-broken-u... 4 February 2017]

[xiii]http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/department/government-sc... [accessed 4 February 2017]

[xiv]http://apo.org.au/node/28263 [accessed 4 February 2017]

About the Author(s): 

Dr Lea Campbell became passionate about public education when she investigated (in)formal school exclusion in the Northern Metropolitan Region of Victoria for VCOSS in 1999. She is co-author of “I just want to go to School” and a founding member and Vice President of Our Children, Our Schools (OCOS).

Breaking Out issue: