'Free' education costs thousands

SIOBHAN DOWNES
Last updated 06:00 24/01/2014

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A "free" education in New Zealand is costing families tens of thousands of dollars, a survey has found.

Its findings were released today as parents face hefty back-to-school costs for the first term – fresh uniforms, workbooks, summer sports fees and school donations, costs that add up over 13 years of education.

For a child starting primary school this year, a state education is expected to cost $34,687, if they stay at school until year 13. That rises to $91,878 for a state-integrated education, and $262,310 for a private education.

To carry out its survey, ASG Education Programs New Zealand used responses from 1000 Kiwi families and measured school fees, transport, uniforms, computers, school excursions and sporting trips.

The cost of education in New Zealand had risen at 1-1/2 times the rate of inflation over the last 10 years, ASG chief executive officer John Velegrinis said.

"Education, like most things, has become far more competitive," he said.

"Parents want to send kids to better schools, schools want to attract better teachers and maybe have to pay them more, and then there's other physical costs.

"Even in the state system, you'll find principals get quite competitive – they want to rank just a bit better than the next one."

Although state schools could not charge fees, they could ask for donations towards the running of the school.

"There is a little bit of guilt associated with it all ... in the end people feel compelled to meet those costs," Velegrinis said.

He advised parents to start planning even before a child was born.

"It's like any major investment in your life. The best way to deal with it is to start early."

Education commentator Stuart Middleton, of the Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland, said the figures did not surprise him.

"It's a big number, isn't it? You'd better hope what they're buying is a high level of success," he said.

"By and large I see the cost of education creeping up and I don't think it has to.

"[Parents] are paying for quite a lot of the frills, in terms of the introduction of uniforms into primary schools, and the demands being made for technology which sometimes outstrip the value of what's being done."

Middleton said there would also be a difference between the cost for a student enrolling in a low-decile school and a student enrolling in a high-decile school, where an education would cost more.

"The income of some high-decile state schools is pretty astonishing ... [they say] if you want your kids to come here, then pay the money. If they don't, someone will take their place. It's a fairly easy business."

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Post-Primary Teachers' Association president Angela Roberts said low-decile schools were struggling to make ends meet as they had fewer opportunities to access funds than high-decile integrated and private schools.

"If you look at the donations for some integrated schools, they're in the thousands of dollars, and you look at some regular state high schools and they're 80 bucks," she said.

"It seems bizarre there are state schools able to ask parents for that kind of money, then there are state schools guilty about asking parents for $80 plus NCEA fees, because they know parents can't pay it."

Government funding was not being targeted at the low-decile students who needed the most financial support, Roberts said.

"What we want is for every parent to be confident that their local school is sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of their kid."

Prime Minister John Key yesterday announced a $359 million education initiative to establish specialist teaching roles to lift achievement in schools.

Education would be the Government's big focus this year, he said.

FREE OR FEES? WHAT SCHOOLS CAN MAKE YOU PAY

There is no charge for primary and secondary education at state and state-integrated schools, if the Ministry of Education is to be believed.

However, state-integrated schools can charge compulsory fees called "attendance dues" for property costs or building maintenance.

Instead of fees, state schools can ask for voluntary "donations" towards their running.

Private schools charge a set fee per term or per year.

PPTA president Angela Roberts described parental contributions as a "grey area" for state and integrated schools.

HOW TO BUDGET THE SCHOOL YEAR

For many Kiwi families the cost of going back to school is one of the biggest financial burdens of the year.

A survey of 450 families by The Warehouse Group found 51 per cent said going back to school was a big or the biggest cost.

Families reported spending on average $372.67 per child to equip them for school.

Family Budgeting Services chief executive officer Raewyn Fox said in recent years she had noticed an increase in clients, most of who were families with children.

She was used to dealing with families struggling with the back-to-school-budget at this time of year, and advised parents to plan ahead.

"In New Zealand school goes back within a month of Christmas, which tends to compound the problem," she said.

"We really encourage to think of school as well when they're thinking about the costs around Christmas."

School uniforms were one of the most expensive items for parents to get hold of, and Fox recommended hunting in second-hand shops or asking around the community.

Parents should talk to schools to see if there were relief funds or payment plans available.

The issue of voluntary donations was a tricky one, she said.

"Parents sometimes feel children are disadvantaged or left out of trips and things if they don't pay.

"If it's a choice between paying a voluntary donation and keeping a roof over your head or feeding the kids ... you have to look at the consequences."

ASG Education Programs New Zealand describes itself as a provider of products for parents to save money for their children's education.

- Fairfax Media

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