When Kate* moved her family to escape domestic violence, her two kids had to start at a new school.
The school camp, held early in the year, seemed like a good way for them to make friends and start to feel at home in their new school community. But it came at a cost, and Kate was already struggling with the expense of separating and moving house.
Kate is not alone in this problem: school ‘extras’ like camps, excursions, school swimming and other sports are a huge part of the school experience for thousands of Victorian families, and many parents struggle to pay for them.
Currently, the Victorian Government provides some help through the Camps, Sports and Excursion Fund, which subsidises the costs of school camps, trips, sport and other activities for more than 200,000 Victorian students each year.
Eligible primary school students can access $125 per year and secondary school students $225 per year. In many cases, this assistance is all that stands between kids participating and missing out.
But funding for Camps, Sports and Excursion Fund expires at the end of this year. The Victorian Government is yet to explain how families that are short of cash will be able to participate in school activities after this point.
But the quantum of funding isn’t the whole story. Flexibility regarding how the money is spent is also crucial.
When Kate was struggling to establish a new life for herself and her kids, her school decided the CSEF money would be used to pay for the swimming program and other excursions during the year, but not the school camp. This was less than ideal because the school camp was the first big event on the school calendar.
Parents should have the confidence the CSEF will genuinely cover all these ‘extras’. This would require payments being increased to reflect the true out-of-pocket costs families are facing, indexed to inflation, and adjusted to allow for more flexibility.
Another problem with the fund is that currently, if the payments aren’t used, they can’t be put towards other out-of-pocket costs like voluntary school fees, books, stationery, school uniforms, before/after school care, music lessons, or formals/graduations.
For Jane*, a single mother with one child doing VCE at a public school, this makes the Fund unhelpful: even though her son is eligible for the CSEF he hasn’t been able to use any of the payment in his fund for the last two years because of the subjects he’s taking.
Last year his cost of schooling was almost $1,800, including school fees ($500), text books ($698) and tutoring ($240); but Jane can’t access the surplus $450 in his CSEF fund to cover any of these expenses.
It is clear families are feeling the pinch of back-school costs.
Earlier this year one community agency in Narre Warren reported providing financial assistance to over 62 families since November, and seeing 10 new families each day.
Another agency servicing Melbourne’s bayside suburbs had processed 24 financial assistance requests from families and a further 43 from local schools.
We know that families are doing it tough. Stagnant wages coupled with high living costs are placing them under enormous pressure.
We hope that this year’s budget will provide some relief to families, and ensure that no kids have to miss out on the valuable experiences of school camps, excursions and sports.
*Names have been changed.