Parents prop up schools to tune of $250m
SARAH HARVEY AND IMOGEN NEALE
New Zealand parents are forking out a quarter of a billion dollars a year in school "donations" to help prop up schools.
With an average cost of running a large secondary school estimated by principals at $10 million, that means parents are fully funding the equivalent of 25 big high schools – buildings, equipment, maintenance and wages.
Increasingly donations are being used to pay for one of the most important areas of the curriculum – new technology.
The struggle to keep students up-to-date with fast moving technology, vital to the country's future, is bringing the issue to a head, principals say.
Teachers and parent groups alike say the concept of "free education" is nonsense and the education system is dependent on parents propping it up.
Secondary School Principals Association president Patrick Walsh, principal of John Paul College in Rotorua, said: "I think the concept of free education at best is seen as aspirational, or is seen as disingenuous by those who propose it."
Education Minister Hekia Parata said: "Schooling has always had a cost. That cost has principally been met by the government of the day, and that continues to be the case now." She says parents have always – and will always – need to pick up some cost.
But parents are saying the donations and fees demanded by schools are getting too much. According to information gained under the Official Information Act by lobby group Family First, the amount of school voluntary donations paid by families in the past four years has totalled more than $1 billion – $234m (2007), $247m (2008), $272m (2009), and $266m in 2010.
One family, which wants to remain anonymous, told the Sunday Star Times they had worked out the high school one of their children attended was receiving a "criminal" $158,000 a year from parents.
"We worked out our child's high school, with around 800 pupils is getting around $158,400 just from the basic school fees (if everyone pays) and this is a simple public school. It's criminal that parents are being put under this much pressure. The government simply needs to provide more funding."
The family has three children, one in primary, one in intermediate and one at high school and were paying $100–$200 each for fees at each school.
"This is on top of the donations for fairs and fundraisers, the sports fees, school camp fees, module fees, performance fees, and swimming fees, etc. And then you have the fees on top of the fees."
The list of the top five schools in terms of donations are all in Auckland – Auckland Grammar (where parents have shelled out more than $8.7m in donations in the past six years), Epsom Girls' Grammar ($4.5m), Macleans College ($4.3m), Avondale College ($3.5m) and Westlake Boys' High School ($3.4m).
In the South Island, Christchurch Girls' and Christchurch Boys' high schools are top of the ladder, each having received about $1.5m in the past six years.
But it is not just parents in posh suburbs forking out big money – parents at eight decile one to three schools in South Auckland have collectively paid almost $4.5m in donations in the past six years.
At the other end of the scale are the likes of Ngapuke School in Taumarunui where parents have paid $233 in the past six years. The decile one school has a roll of just 80 pupils.
Bob McCroskrie, national director of Family First NZ, said: "Despite the Education Act saying that state school education is free, this is completely removed from the truth. Families are forking out large amounts to help schools meet their budgets and provide core services."
Walsh said: "The reality is schools couldn't afford to function without a contribution from parents or finding some other secondary income stream."
He said the issue had been "brought to a head" over the cost of technology in schools.
He had fielded a number of calls already this year from concerned principals wanting pupils to have laptops, tablets or e-readers but unsure how to make it an affordable option.
"This year we have the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband which is excellent but the difficulty is the ability of schools to use its full potential is variable.
"Some schools can ask their parents to pay for laptops and iPads and others can't."
Walsh said the education ministry had "failed to take the lead".
"I returned from a conference in Canada last year and the ministries over there are doing deals with publishing companies where they are allowing them to download textbooks on to e-readers and iPads at a fraction of the cost [of books].
"Our government hasn't followed that lead.
"They either have to say `yes we are committed to a free education and we fund schools the whole cost of delivering a quality education' or say `we just simply can't afford to pay for that so we are now going to allow the schools to have a reasonable charge on parents'."
Parata said governments had always provided school systems but parents had always "contributed their part"
"Parents have always provided pens and pencils, and calculators and compasses and in this day and age technology is related to the internet."
She said it was up to individual schools to decide how much technology they needed to incorporate to deliver the curriculum.
The government was investing $1.5b in ultra-fast broadband, of which about $160m was committed to improving schools' infrastructure and $300-$400m is expected to be invested in creating the Network for Learning over the next 10 years, she said.
Tom Parsons, principal of Picton's decile four Queen Charlotte College, said the school was fortunate to have the latest technology in terms of ultra-fast broadband. The school had a ratio of about four pupils to a computer.
"We pay $50,000 out of operational funding on leasing arrangement for laptops."
With around 380 students that's about $130 per child.
However Parsons said the school could not afford to improve the ratio of computers to pupils.
He said the school did not charge fees because of the low socio-economic area it drew from, but instead made extra money through running its own buses, renting out four houses, and sponsorship from the Marine Farming Association.
An OECD Programme for International Student Assessment report released last week found that pupils in New Zealand are among the world's top achievers despite a comparative lack of funding. The report looked at the link between national wealth and student achievement, and found the amount spent on education was less important than how resources were used.
THE COST OF EDUCATION: PARENTS HAVE THEIR SAY
There is resentment among parents about being forced to subsidise the education system.
Of the more than 270 parents of school-aged children canvassed by the Sunday Star-Times 90 per cent pay the voluntary donations but 54 per cent said it had become tougher over the past five years.
About a third of parents are finding it so tough they have to pay by instalments. Some said the "voluntary" fees paled into insignificance when compared to individual subject, camp, uniform, sports, activity, photocopying and stationary and text book costs.
About 40 per cent said they had to pay an additional fee for information technology with some schools charging more than $100 for that alone.
This is what some parents said:
"The fees/donations keep going up, the so-called free schooling in the public sector no longer exists and therefore the schools are crying out for more money as the government doesn't give them enough, and that's usually just for day to day maintenance, not replacement of buildings or equipment."
"I have never agreed with the way schools charge parents for `donations'. These have increased dramatically over the years and my experience is that some schools won't take no for an answer but hound you long after your children have left. The government should be funding public schools to a far greater degree."
"Five years ago we had three school-aged children, with the eldest two at a high-decile school that charged very high fees. That saw us paying more than $1200 for the two of them combined. The add-ons were the killer."
"All three children at school now means more than $1000 a year in school donations, so we have to pay it a bit at a time when we can."
"I understand that if I do not pay it's my child who will be punished by not being able to go on field trips and other school activities."
"Fees for intermediate went up 40 per cent this year. Last year I was able to pay lump sum, this year I have to do instalments."
However, some parents were happy to help their school.
"I believe that parents need to pay fees where possible so schools aren't struggling to provide the standard of education our children need. I think there should be a cap for parents with several children. We have only one child and are happy to pay fees"
"We realise that paying these donations allows the school to provide essential services to the pupils and teachers. There is no question of not paying them, even though we are already paying our full share in taxes that should be covering these things. I object to some people not paying the 'donations'."
- Sunday Star Times