Ministry investigates schools over fees

Two prestigious schools are being investigated by the Ministry of Education over illegal fee-charging, with one ordered to stop demanding payments from parents.

Wanganui Collegiate School and Nga Tawa Diocesan School are under the ministry's spotlight as it investigates charges of thousands of dollars for "voluntary" donations, enrolment fees, and compulsory lunches.

In the past fortnight, Wanganui Collegiate School board of trustees was been warned to stop forcing parents to pay voluntary donations and lunch charges.

In Marton, Nga Tawa was told to scrap an enrolment fee last year because it was unlawful.

Both colleges are decile 10 state-integrated schools, held up as producing some of the country's top academic performers.

Former television presenter Judy Bailey is a Nga Tawa old girl, while All Blacks World Cup-winning captain David Kirk and Prince Edward both attended Wanganui.

A year ago, Wanganui Collegiate was integrated into the state school system as it struggled with a falling roll and growing debt under the private school model.

Chris Moller, who starts as the new headmaster this year, said the school was not "smooth running" and still needed to resolve some outstanding issues.

"There's obviously things we've got to address. I'm not sure what the specifics are as I haven't had a full briefing," he said.

"Wanganui Collegiate is still in the process of defining the roles of two boards and how fees should be set."

He was aware the ministry had concerns about some fees. "I know the ministry is watching us closely, for obvious reasons."

Katrina Casey, the ministry's head of sector enablement, said there had been complaints received about Wanganui Collegiate regarding voluntary donations.

"We have reminded the school that, under the Education Act, enrolment and education for domestic students is free, and that any compulsion of voluntary contributions is unlawful.

"We have told the school we require it to cease any practice that attempts to compel payment of voluntary contributions."

She said the school was allowed to charge for a lunch programme only if students voluntarily chose to eat at the school.

"We will follow up directly with the board when school is back in February."

The ministry is also meeting the Nga Tawa board of trustees early this year to discuss its lunch charges.

Moller said the majority of the students at Wanganui Collegiate were boarders who ate all their meals at the college. The 150 day students charged for meals could take part in evening meals if they wanted.

Most of the complaints were coming from parents of day students who did not understand how fees worked, he said.

Parents were asked to pay a parental contribution for services including student entertainment, pastoral care, meals, academic prep supervision, medical, health and counselling services and Christian worship and chaplaincy.

The school website states that, while the charges are not compulsory, they are essential to "the overall delivery of the college environment".

"Unfortunately, students whose parents are not willing to contribute payment for these charges will be unable to benefit from the majority of services that underpin our community environment," the website states.

The latest investigations comes after Hutt International Boys' School was found by the ministry to have overcharged parents by nearly 15 per cent, or about $300, in 2010 and 2011 fees.

In May 2012, the ministry wrote to the school saying fees were being overcharged by more than $300 and parents had a right to be refunded the difference.

The school, which receives more than $1.1m in annual operations grants, would have unlawfully received more than $300,000 from parents during the time it overcharged.

However, the school has told parents its fees are correct and sanctioned by the ministry.

The Dominion Post