HUNTER families have forked out more than $4 million to send their children to the region’s state schools, although some gave hundreds of dollars and others didn’t contribute a cent.
The state school system may be based on the principle that public education is free to all, but most schools request voluntary contributions to enhance education and sporting programs.
A Newcastle Herald analysis of the most recent Department of Education data shows families paid a total of $4,432,505 to the region’s primary and secondary public schools in 2017, comprising $1,848,236 in voluntary contributions and $2,584,269 in subject contributions, which cover their children studying elective subjects that go beyond the minimum requirements of the curriculum.
The Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW has called on the government to change the way schools ask for contributions to make it more clear the payments aren’t compulsory – and to ultimately stop asking at all.
“In the government school sector, it’s the responsibility of governments, not parents, to ensure that children have access to proper facilities and services,” president Susie Boyd said.
“This is particularly important in light of the rising costs of living for parents and the fact that parents across the state are currently struggling under the crippling drought.”
NSW Teachers Federation Hunter representative Jack Galvin Waight said the federation also believed funding a “free and secular public education system” was the government’s responsibility and parents shouldn’t shoulder “the burden”.
“School fees can create an inbuilt inequity as schools in wealthy areas are able to set contributions at much higher levels than schools in lower socioeconomic areas with greater need,” he said.
Ms Boyd said while families should not feel pressured to provide funds or equipment, this was not always the case.
She said some schools ask for contributions in the form of invoices, which suggest they are compulsory, while others ask parents to provide funds for specific resources that they also state voluntary contributions will cover.
“The practice of asking for voluntary contributions is being abused by schools using high-pressure tactics on parents to collect funds,” she said.
“The government should instruct schools to cease the practice, and then take that opportunity to put in place strict policies for schools guidance in collection of funds.
"This must include making [it] unambiguously clear to parents that the contributions are optional, and strict rules that any contributions must enhance educational opportunities for students, rather than merely fund the delivery of the defined curriculum.”
Most Hunter schools don’t publicly publish the sum they request families to pay.
Redhead Public asks families to pay a “classroom enhancement fee” of $70 per child, which decreases for subsequent children, that is “applied to the provision of classroom materials needed to support learning in each of the key learning areas”.
It says this covers equipment including exercise books, pencils, glue sticks, whiteboard markers and a duster and families only need to supply a pencil case.
Cardiff High asks parents to “contribute by paying as soon as invoices are sent home” for sums that start at $60 per child and decrease with subsequent children.
The contributions “assist with the successful running of the school” and “help fund resources such as equipment repair, maintenance and school newsletters”.
Subject contributions range from $10 for English to $75 for hospitality.
Merewether High also invites contributions of a $75 building levy, $125 library levy and $75 technology levy. Charlestown Public asks families of students from year one onwards to pay for a $20 book pack.
Its list of “day-to-day equipment” needed by students includes a box of tissues, liquid soap and a roll of paper towel.
Department policy says contributions are voluntary and “payment is a matter for decision by parents”.
“There will be no charge to fulfil the minimum requirements of the curriculum,” the policy says.
“Parents who are unable to pay for elective subjects because of financial hardship may be eligible for assistance from the school.
"Principals will ensure that no student or family suffers any discrimination or embarrassment over failure to make a voluntary or subject contribution. Confidentiality, privacy and dignity must always be maintained.”
Principals must determine the level of contributions with the school community and disclose contributions in annual financial statements.