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Auditor-General reveals impact of school costs for families

This week the Victorian Auditor General’s Office (VAGO) tabled a much anticipated audit into Additional School Costs for Families. Its objective was to assess whether the Department of Education and Training (DET) and government schools are managing parent education costs economically, efficiently and effectively and in accordance with legislation and policies.

The Auditor-General was scathing in his assessment of the way the system now works and the impost it is putting on students, families, schools, and the community organisations people are increasingly turning to for support. Key findings included:

  • Parent payments are not just a ‘topping up’ school’s income – payments are an essential part of school funding
  • In 2013, Victorian families contributed $310 million to schools; an increase of $70 million or 29 per cent since 2009
  • DET does not know what the actual cost of free instruction is and whether the funds provided through the Students Resource Package (SRP) are sufficient and appropriate
  • As schools are largely autonomous, DET does not know whether parent payment requests are reasonable and comply with requirements under the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.

Isn’t state education free?

State education is not free in Victoria. Legislation provides that instruction in the ‘standard curriculum’ program must be provided free to all students in Victorian government schools. This includes the provision of learning and teaching activities, instructional supports, materials and resources, and administration and facilities associated with the standard curriculum program. However, schools charge for the materials students use such as:

  • textbooks including hire or access to class sets of textbooks
  • stationery (pens, pencils, exercise books, workbooks)
  • materials for elective subjects where the student takes home the finished work (e.g. home economics)
  • programs provided by visiting artists, speakers or performers
  • camps and excursions that all students are expected to attend
  • school identification cards
  • school uniform
  • official diary, handbook, or work planner
  • Computer printing over what is needed for class.

In 2013, Victorian parents paid $310 million to schools—an average of $558 per student. This is an increase of $70 million or 29 per cent since 2009.  The Auditor-General expressed concern about the increasing reliance on parent contributions to schooling:

Over time, parent payments have evolved from being used to support free instruction, to being essential to its provision. In effect, parents are being charged for items and activities that should be free under legislation and policy.

A frustration expressed by VCOSS members for many years is the lack of clarity around what parents can be charged for. The Auditor General’s (AG) report notes this lack of clarity finding that:

‘There is no shared understanding between DET and schools on the definition of free instruction in the standard curriculum or on the main elements of the three parent payment categories—essential education items, optional extras and voluntary financial contributions’.

The audit highlights a lack of accountability about what schools are charging. Policies vary across the state which means that “essentially items that are free to some students are not free to others”. A lack of oversight by DET means that “there are no consequences for schools that charge parents for items that should be provided for free.

The report cites examples of items that should be provided for free but are being charged for by schools including:

  • ‘class sets’ such as text books
  • ‘bulk classroom items’ such as stationery, paper, art supplies, tissues
  • ‘head lice checks’
  • ‘administration supplies’ such as paper, printer cartridges, photocopier/printer maintenance
  • ‘sporting equipment maintenance’
  • ‘information technology maintenance’
  • ‘first aid nurse’
  • ‘grounds maintenance’.

Inadequate school funding

Schools rightly point to the inadequacy of core funding as contributing to the increasing reliance on parent payments. A survey of schools as part of the audit reveals that the majority of schools are spending well over their allocated funding. The SRP allocation is clearly insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs.

In 2013–14, government schools received $5.5 billion from the Commonwealth and state governments.  Funding per student in Victoria is well below the national average:

 

  • Expenditure per primary school student was $11 763 – 14.4 per cent below the national average
  • Expenditure per secondary school student was $15 032 – 11.4 per cent below the national average.

DET distributes funding based on an assessment of each school’s relative need taking into account factors such as the number of students enrolled, individual student needs and the type of school. Therefore, school funding is not based on the actual costs associated with providing free instruction in the standard curriculum.  The audit found that:

DET has not sought to fully understand the actual costs of providing free instruction, an activity that could lead to securing further funding for its schools. It has not sought to provide government with any advice on the adequacy of government school funding in recent years. DET has not been able to provide assurance that the overall funding for schools is in fact adequate.

Equity and education disadvantage

We already know that community sector agencies provide a significant level of support to families to meet education costs. Too often community organisations pick up the tab for an underfunded education system. You can read a range of agency perspectives on the Cover the Costs website.   This issue is recognised in the Auditor General’s report and the audit notes the impact of exclusion on students:

Welfare agencies have in recent years publicly expressed concerns about the effect of exclusion on a child’s wellbeing—reporting that such exclusion can lead to low self‑esteem, behavioral issues, refusal to attend school and poor academic performance. They have also stated that the costs of essential education items such as school uniforms and information technology place a strain on the welfare agencies’ available funds.

Of great concern to VCOSS is that of the 366 schools surveyed as part of the audit, none had a written hardship policy and very little guidance is provided to schools by DET:

Practices surrounding student hardship vary among schools, reflecting the fact that DET does not provide specific guidance in this area. School principals predominantly deal with each matter on a case-by-case basis, tailoring payment plans to individual circumstances. Most schools, 93 per cent advised that they offer a parent payment plan, while just over half would refer parents to a school welfare officer and/or welfare organisations. Some schools approached welfare organisations on behalf of parents. However, given there are no written policies in place, it is difficult to determine whether current practices are appropriate and whether parents are being treated fairly in all instances.

Some schools advised that a decision to allow attendance without payment would depend on individual circumstances. This process relies on making judgments about a parent’s capacity to pay, the student’s desire to attend, the schools capacity to cover the cost and a desire to send a message to the school community that if you do not pay, your child does not go.

The survey showed that inclusion/exclusion practices were inconsistent across schools:

  • 91 per cent of schools advised that they allowed students to attend the standard curriculum where parents could not or did not pay
  • Only 46 per cent advised that they would let students attend optional extra programs without payment.

Support for families

For more than 20 years, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) had helped low-income families meet school costs such as books, uniforms, excursions, camps, and increasingly, IT equipment. The Napthine Government cut the EMA and developed a new funding model where EMA funds were distributed to schools according to the Student Family Occupation (SFO) index. Only around 50 per cent of government schools are eligible for the funding according to this model.

Last year as part of the Cover the Costs campaign, VCOSS argued against the use of the SFO Index for a number of reasons.  While the use of the SFO index recognised the need for greater assistance for the most disadvantaged schools, it fails to recognise that disadvantaged students exist across the whole school system, not only in those schools with a high SFO entitlement. This is not an equitable distribution and places additional pressure on some schools support students with no additional funding.

Another issue is the loss of clear eligibility criteria. The EMA was a means-tested payment based on the parent or carer holding a Centrelink/Veterans Affairs concession card. The new model removes the need for a health care card so there is no longer an objective eligibility test. This places the onus on Principals to make decisions about how to direct the funds – which students will receive the funds, how much they will receive and when? This subjective decision making is not transparent.  The Auditor General’s report also notes that “it is unclear how principals will be able to identify those students in need of additional support”.

The Auditor General notes an additional limitation of the SFO:

All principals expressed concerns about parents misrepresenting their occupational status. Parents would primarily do this to avoid their children being associated with what they perceive to be social stigmatisations…. (for example) some rural principals expressed similar concerns about farmers stating their occupations to be senior managers in large business organisations. These practices result in schools receiving lower SFO ratings than they should, which causes them to be deemed more privileged than they are. This has the potential to affect a school’s eligibility for SFO funding.

VCOSS has already taken calls from parents who were unaware of the changes to EMA and have started the school year anxious about how they will pay for school expenses. One mother said:

As a parent, would you be able to choose between school photos or an excursion to the zoo? No parent should be made to feel that they are disempowered by their financial situation especially if their child or children attend a public school. This will instill a classist society in the classroom, where children will be identified, not by their ability, but by whether they can participate as a fully-fledged member of the class in all activities.

The Andrews Government has committed to introduce a Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund and to provide additional resources for State Schools’ Relief for uniforms and school materials. VCOSS is calling on the Government to deliver on these commitments in the next state budget to help ameliorate the loss of the EMA.

Audit recommendations

The report contains a number of recommendations, all of which have been accepted by DET and work is underway to address each.  The audit recommended that DET:

  1. improves the basis for estimating the funding required to meet efficient school costs, including examining the factors that influence costs and using statistically valid sampling methods
  2. enhances the capabilities of CASES21 and requires schools to collect and report the data needed for it to better understand school revenue and costs
  3. regularly and comprehensively consults school principals and school council members to better understand school funding requirements
  4. incorporates comprehensive efficiency and economy measures into its school performance framework to establish oversight, compliance and accountability
  5. provides guidance and training to school councillors, principals and business managers on efficiency and economy better practice
  6. updates its parent payment policy and guidance material to provide clear guidance on acceptable parent payment practices
  7. Regularly reviews school parent payment policies and practices, and intervenes where those practices are identified as breaching legislation or policy requirements.

The bigger issue of sustainable, needs based funding

Supporting parents to meet additional schooling costs is just one part of the funding puzzle. Another challenging issue is ensuring schools have an appropriate and sustainable funding base from which to provide the resources necessary for a quality education.

Victoria must introduce a needs based funding model, as proposed by the 2011 Review of Funding for Schooling, or ‘Gonski’ review. This review recommended a needs-based, sector-neutral funding model to ensure that an adequate level of funding was allocated to each student, based on their specific needs. Schools need to be funded for the actual cost of education.

VCOSS is pleased to be one of the partners in the upcoming Need to Succeed symposium on 24 March. This forum will bring together peak principal, parent and community sector organisations to explore “what next for Victorian School Funding?”

Deputy Premier of Victoria and Education Minister, the Hon. James Merlino MP will explain the Victorian government’s plan to tackle disadvantage in the school system and Dr Ken Boston AO, Gonski review panellist, will discuss the findings of the 2011 report. Visit the Need to Succeed website for more details about the symposium.