Special characters: The state-funded schools that ask pupils for $5000 and more
Some of the country's most prestigious schools ask for up to $11,000 a year in fees – while being mostly funded by the government. How is that fair? Tom Fitzsimons reports.
At the start of the year, Chris Moller, headmaster at Wanganui Collegiate School, long one of New Zealand's most exclusive schools, sent out a newsletter to parents.
He told them of a significant change this year: "a direct attempt to reduce class sizes". The school would now aim for a ratio of 20 pupils or fewer per teacher.
"We believe that this will give us a significant point of difference to other schools."
Two weeks later, the school's property director gave parents an update on recent building work.
Projects included a refurbishment of dormitories in boarding house Empson House, including a "large dayroom that opens out onto the golf course"; an upgrade to the HG Carver Memorial Library, with considerable effort spent on "ensuring that the original interior ceiling and walls are exposed"; new designs for a "flagship" administration building; and similar work on three other buildings.
This might not seem so unusual. Why is it notable for an elite school to boast of its small classes and fancy buildings?
Yet Wanganui Collegiate is not an elite school in the old style any more, funded privately.
Since 2013, when it was rescued by the government in public and controversial fashion, it has been a state-integrated school. It receives $3.3 million annually in public money to pay for teachers, cleaning, books, equipment and all the other operational costs of a school – on the same basis as other state schools.
It also receives public funding for maintenance and major capital work on its "integrated" buildings – and could apply for state funding for new buildings if local demand for schools were to grow.
Yet despite all of this support, Wanganui Collegiate can still draw serious funds from another source: parents.
Unlike state schools, which by law must provide a free education, it can charge them a compulsory fee – or "attendance dues" – of $2760 per year.
On top of that, the school asks day students for $6340 for "boarding facilities", even though they are not boarders. It also asks for two further donations of $900 each.
The grand total requested of a day student at Wanganui Collegiate is therefore $10,900, the most for any state-funded school in the country.
Even the most pedigreed state schools ask for much less – Wellington College, for instance, asks for about $800. And in that case, parents can refuse to pay nearly all of it.
The school says it is primarily a boarding school, which needs to offer appropriate facilities, that parents can opt out of some charges, and that it is paying for a major earthquake-strengthening programme by itself.
Critics say such schools are "private schools in drag" – able to draw on the state's resources while continuing to cultivate a patrician image, golf course and all.
So is this a form of double-dipping? Should Wanganui Collegiate have had to drop the soaring charges when it entered the state system? And how many other schools have the same deal?
ROAD TO INTEGRATION
The story of state-integrated schools goes back to 1975, when the third Labour Government, the Catholic church and the education sector hammered out a deal to bring the then-foundering Catholic school system into the public fray.
The result was a classic compromise: the government would pay the operational costs of the formerly private schools (teacher salaries and so on); the church would pay for the upkeep of its buildings, which it would continue to own; and the schools could retain their "special character", which usually meant their religious instruction and practice.
On one point, however, the legislation was at odds with itself. It mandated that the schools provide a "free education" in the style of state schools. But it also allowed them to charge pupils "attendance dues", compulsory fees to help cover the proprietors' building costs and historic debt.
In the 40 years since the law's passage, much has changed. In 1998, for instance, after a court case, the Government agreed to provide much of the capital funding for state-integrated schools, increasing their taxpayer help.
On the other hand, owners of integrated schools say they have had to pay more when governments have introduced rules that required them to provide extra space for students. To make up for such past policy changes, this year's Budget included a $20 million "full and final recognition" payment for school owners.
They also argue that they still carry debt from building work before their integration, which justifies their compulsory charges. And they are responsible for all work on "non-integrated" buildings, such as chapels.
In any case, the Catholic schools have now revived by most measures and are often viewed as desirable, even by parents with no connection to the church.
And other schools have joined them – Rudolf Steiner schools, evangelical Christian schools, Muslim schools – from a wide geographical and socio-economic span. All in all, about 89,000 pupils go to state-integrated schools, almost 12 per cent of the total student population.
Some charge nothing at all – Auckland's Wesley College, for instance, waives attendance dues entirely. Most Catholic secondary schools ask for about $1000 to $2000, not much more than high-decile state schools, though a handful, in upmarket parts of Auckland, are now requesting nearly $5000.
Most strikingly, the state-integrated cohort has come to include a group of prestigious, socially exclusive schools, usually affiliated with the Anglican or Presbyterian churches and concentrated in the provincial North Island.
These schools typically market their small class sizes, rolling grounds, historic buildings and academic success. And they ask for the contributions to match.
Marton's Nga Tawa Diocesan School, between Palmerston North and Whanganui, for instance, is the "only girls boarding school in New Zealand with an onsite Equestrian Centre"; it asks day students for $6880, including $690 in compulsory dues.
Trentham's Hutt International Boys School asks for $7200 annually in fees and donations; among these are a contribution, it says, that is "the key to small class sizes and hiring extra staff needed for this, beyond the level allowed by Government".
Hastings' Lindisfarne College advertises its "culture of excellence", park-like surroundings and "olde world charm"; what it calls its "consolidated fees" amount to $9189 for day boys.
Waikato Diocesan School for Girls, which calls itself "one of the highest performing schools in New Zealand", requests $7611 from day students – $431 of which is the compulsory attendance due.
Integration was dreamed up to save and professionalise an ailing religious school system that arguably saved the taxpayer substantial amounts of money.
However, as government funding has expanded, the savings for the public purse have become less obvious.
And as the pool of schools has widened, a system intended to keep struggling schools afloat has come to include some of the most well-endowed.
This year, as the Government rolled the 1975 law into a revamped Education Act, the Ministry of Education reported that 73 per cent of pupils at state-integrated schools come from Decile 6 areas or higher – versus 55 per cent at state schools.
Some 90 per cent of integrated school leavers get NCEA Level 2 or better, against 75 per cent at state schools.
In other words, state-integrated schools now cater for wealthier pupils than those at state schools, and those more likely to succeed.
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD?
Concerns that state integration has been somehow abused are not new. In 2003, the Ministry of Education produced a discussion paper that worried that "high attendance dues, along with other 'voluntary fees', are likely to act as a barrier to participation. They may also create the impression of an elitist education system being paid for largely with public funds".
The paper floated the idea of setting a "date by which all attendance dues must have reduced to nil".
The discussion didn't go anywhere – these days, the ministry says there are no plans to change the current settings – but many education observers believe it had it right.
Guy Gifford, a retired Whanganui secondary school teacher who has been waging a battle to change the system, argues that the ministry has allowed attendance dues, meant to be a small and temporary charge, to morph into permanent fees.
High dues encouraged integrated schools to "empire build", he told Parliament's education select committee - "to provide a show of extravagant buildings that state schools can not hope to match. It's the best advertising they could get".
Ex-Hutt City Councillor Max Shierlaw has previously lambasted Hutt International Boys School, which his son had attended, for what he saw as its lack of identifiable special character.
Some schools, he told the select committee this year, "present a facade of being a Christian school, but it is a sham."
And many operated, he said, "to all intents and purposes as private schools by charging fees which are out of the reach of many families, by maintaining smaller class sizes than most state schools and having equipment and activities well in excess of most state schools".
In 2015, researchers at consulting firm Sapere Research Group wrote a paper for the Ministry of Education that took a broad look at school funding. One of their eight main conclusions was that "state-integrated schools appear to have an overly favourable funding pattern". (The ministry says that report "does not contain the evidence or depth of analysis that would allow that conclusion to be drawn").
The PPTA believes the law governing integrated schools should be repealed and replaced with something "that preserves their special character, but avoids undue privilege".
One 2009 union paper argued that "it is particularly galling that [attendance dues] are used to reduce class sizes when public schools cannot charge parents for such things and cannot get governments to take the problem of over-large secondary classes seriously".
(The ministry says, in response, that other schools can use donations to hire more teachers if they wish.)
Waikato University Education Professor Martin Thrupp believes integration was a good idea – because it brought many more schools under state guidance.
"It stops us moving towards a situation you've got in Australia, where public schools are seen as somehow second-rate, and you get a critical mass of people who think they have to send their kids to a private school to get a good education."
Yet in practice, some schools have become prime examples of what he calls a "very segregated education system". Being able to select their own pupils helps with that, and so do fees.
"Social exclusivity has been part of the attraction for years ... They do keep less wealthy people out. You look on the website and they've got very much the feel of a private school - it's their buildings and the history of the school. I was looking at [Masterton's] Rathkeale College, for instance, which says it is 'situated in 60 hectares of park-like surroundings'. These are very important market signals of what kind of school it is."
He points out that top state schools also portray themselves as prestigious institutions – and ask parents for more than lower-decile schools can – but "at the end of the day it's not $13,000 or whatever it might be."
FEES AND DUES
Critics also say some schools put huge pressure on parents to collect even supposedly voluntary donations.
In 2009, Masterton's Rathkeale College made headlines for suggesting that a parent who had not paid $13,000 in "voluntary" donations for her son's education should secure the cash against the future sale of her home.
In 2013, the ministry warned Hutt International that it had overcharged parents in 2010 and 2011. A year later, it investigated Wanganui Collegiate and Nga Tawa for pressing parents to pay voluntary donations, lunch charges and enrolment fees.
Despite years of publicity about such breaches, many schools are still struggling to play by the rules.
For instance, schools are not allowed to "demand any form of payment to confirm enrolment at the school", according to ministry guidance.
Yet at Auckland's Catholic Baradene College, according to its website, "the proprietor has adopted a policy that all entrants should pay the college contributions in advance". ("What they're saying is they want to make sure that when people enrol, they don't then pull out," says principal Sandy Pasley.)
State-integrated schools are not supposed to refer to donations, or even attendance dues, as fees, but many do exactly that, often blurring all their requests together as a grand total, presumably to impress upon parents the importance of paying the whole bill.
Lindisfarne's $9000 charge, which includes several voluntary components, is bundled together as "consolidated fees".
Auckland's Catholic Sacred Heart College asks for $4090 of day boys, with no mention of voluntary payments; "Confirmation of your enrolment will follow payment of Term 1 Financial Contributions and Attendance Dues for the following year," the school says.
St Mary's Diocesan School in Stratford, Taranaki, presents a total bill of $4302 to parents, with no mention of voluntary payments. It includes a service payment for school lunches – though other schools have been ticked off for demanding the same.
Professor Thrupp says "the kind of heavying of parents around paying school donations seems to be a feature that comes through quite a lot with these schools".
Gifford says that some integrated schools, eager to move away from voluntary contributions, have even found ways to ask for compulsory payments that the law never intended.
He believes, for instance, that Nga Tawa's $19,000 compulsory boarding fee is much higher than comparable boarding schools. The difference, he alleges, is collected by the school's owners and passed to its board of trustees, which is not allowed to charge compulsory fees of its own, to spend on more teachers.
The ministry says it has "no evidence that boarding fees are currently being used as a way to charge higher fees overall".
Nga Tawa principal Lesley Carter says the school provides "superb" boarding facilities and its fee is on par with other schools of a similar size. She says Gifford is wrong and the fee is not used for reducing class sizes.
Of the school's $6880 request for day students, she says only $690 is compulsory and the rest, which includes a charge for lunches, is "purely voluntary".
Meanwhile, the Office of the Auditor-General has repeatedly pointed out that there are financial accountability risks involved with state-integrated schools, because "the number of different parties involved … make it difficult for parents to satisfy themselves about the use to which their fees and donations have been put".
CHOICE, AT A COST
Representatives of state-integrated schools make a straightforward argument about their charges: that the compulsory payments are about servicing historic debt – and the donations are entirely voluntary.
Paul Ferris, the head of both the Catholic Education Office and the over-arching Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools, says many schools carry large amounts of debt.
"You cannot just decide to make an attendance due what you think you'd like to get. It's a formula, it's administered by the ministry, we agree on the range the fee can sit within, and it's based on the costs the proprietor has to provide buildings that meet a state standard."
Speaking for the Catholic schools, he says, hundreds of millions of dollars of debt are involved. The goal is to lower attendance dues "as soon as we can get our debt to a manageable level", he says.
"We believe that our role here is to provide accessible education for the Catholic community of New Zealand, in partnership with the Government. We don't want to make attendance dues a barrier to entry to the schools."
Most observers agree Catholic schools do generally cater for diverse student populations. But what about the Auckland ones asking for $4000 or more?
They have ways of remitting the fees for those who can't pay, Ferris says. And besides, their communities are demanding facilities that require higher contributions.
"If they were really pressing their community for something that wasn't right, the community wouldn't pay it. They're an intelligent, engaged community – they know what they're contributing towards."
And the 15 or 20 schools that look – and charge – like private schools always did?
"I think the majority of integrated schools are very strongly committed to their character, and to delivery in the state framework," he says.
When told that some schools ask for upwards of $9000 or $10,000, however, he says: "Hell, that's high."
And he says that "from time to time", his office talks to state-integrated schools about how they are presenting their charges.
But these are only a minority, he stresses.
"I think that's a very, very small group of integrated schools. We've got to be really careful that doesn't define the vast majority of integrated schools. Integrated schools now are 11.5 per cent of the schooling provision of New Zealand. That is a tremendous contribution by proprietors and parents who've already paid tax to help support the state network provision of education. You've got to put it in context."
Hibs principal Mike Hutchins says many parents make considerable sacrifices to send their boys to his school, because they want them to have a single-sex education with Christian values.
The school believes smaller class sizes are effective, an approach endorsed by its results and excess demand for places, he says.
"It is disappointing that our parents have to make a donation to cover this. I would love to see the government provide this level of staffing for all schools."
The donations also included costs that other state schools often charged separately for, such as sports team membership and camps.
Wanganui Collegiate board of trustees chairman Martin Gray says his school is "predominantly a boarding school", and day students can opt out of the $6000 boarding facilities charge if they wish, though few do.
Asked if local families would view the $10,900 charge as a barrier to attending the school, he says: "Parents have always got choices, and if they like the offer, and all that that entails, they can choose that."
Mark Larson, executive director of the Association of Integrated Schools, which represents most of the non-Catholic integrated schools, says the current system rightly gives parents options.
"My enthusiasm for the state-integrated model is that it does provide parental choice. And that comes with, I think, significant advantages for lots of parents who want a particular sort of special character education.
"But it does come with challenges to try to keep the system as fair and equitable as you can in a freer education market. We haven't got it 100 per cent right. I do think we've got some of the issues you've alluded to. We just have to keep working and try to keep that the best it can be within the sort of market the Government's operating. But I would defend with my life having the choice that we have."
FUTURE OF FUNDING
Even some representatives of state-integrated schools, then, say the system has its excesses. What could an alternative look like?
Professor Thrupp says it might preserve the best of integration – diverse educational philosophies contained within the state system – while cutting down on fees.
If Ferris is right, the Catholic schools might eventually get there. Other schools that pay down their debt ought, in theory, be able to wipe the compulsory charges too. And that, in turn, might make fudging the difference between fees and donations much harder.
On the other hand, it might not happen by itself. The ministry's 2003 paper noted that, despite expectations that attendance dues would decline over time "as debts associated with capital upgrades were paid off", they had in fact risen.
One thing that does already seem to have shifted is the Government's appetite for integrating new schools. The ministry reports that in the past five years, private schools have made 16 applications to integrate – 11 have been rejected and only five accepted.
Still, further change seems unlikely.
"It is not Government policy to change how state-integrated schools are funded," officials wrote during this year's Education Act overhaul. That's pretty clear – and it chimes with other government statements.
When Education Minister Nikki Kaye announced the $20m boost for integrated schools last month, she lauded the schools for their provision of "choice and diversity".
Of course, it's true that all schools complain about struggling for cash – and some state schools have got into trouble for "heavying" parents, too.
But most can't make the charges compulsory, or dare to ask for many thousands of dollars. Even the best-known state schools, in the most desirable zones, raise much less than the upper stratum of state-integrated schools.
Decile 10 Wellington College, for instance, typically reports raising about $600,000 in donations. Hibs, less than half the size, raises more than $2m in donations – and, if all students pay the compulsory dues, $1.5m from those too.
Or consider Decile 6 Rongotai College, which has the same number of students as Hibs, and receives only slightly more government funding. It raised $113,000 in donations in 2015, a far cry from $3.5m.
Gifford says the danger is a system where more parents feel they must send their children to a better-resourced private or integrated school.
"The trend is clear; the taxpayer is funding a network of schools in direct competition with state schools, and the state schools are losing ground."
- The Dominion Post