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Making public education affordable

Single mother families do it tough when it comes to school costs, writes Jenny Davidson, CEO of Council of Single Mothers and their Children.

Single mothers head almost 200,000 families in Victoria, and more frequently live in poverty than any other family structure. Their experience of Victorian public schools illustrates the impact of family struggles with school costs.

The Council of Single Mothers and their Children support over 2000 families each year to access basic human rights such as financial security, affordable housing, flexible work, education opportunities, legal protection, and health and wellbeing support. This support includes distributing financial aid to single mothers with children in Victorian secondary schools at the start of each school year. The available funding does not meet the need we face, with many single mothers with children in primary school missing out (not to mention low income families with two parents).

Many factors compound the unaffordability of our public education system, including:

  • patchy understanding and application in schools of the Department of Education and Training’s guidelines around optional payment of school fees
  • uniform and book costs
  • more personal devices use at younger and younger ages, with children as young as six sometimes required to have a tablet
  • the Federal School Kids Bonus ending in 2016.

Children feel both short- and long-term repercussions. Kids are made to feel different for having the wrong uniform or school supplies, not having their own device, or being unable to attend school excursions. Feeling different can affect children’s learning and provoke disengagement from education.

We hear many stories of schools mishandling financial hardship.

Administration staff pull kids up in the hall, in front of their peers, to say, “Tell mum she has to pay the school fees” (when, in fact, they are optional).

We hear of very young children hiding school forms, to try and shield their mum from a cost she can’t afford.

We hear of families having to buy a specific tablet from a set provider, rather than being allowed to find a more affordable option; and then having to purchase a laptop once their child reaches high school. Many single mother families are on the wrong side of the digital divide, with no home internet or computer for homework.

Some families’ poverty is so acute they skip meals or don’t buy fresh groceries. And it’s compounded by the huge costs they encounter at the start of each school year.

The Stronger Schools platform suggests solutions to a range of issues, many of which disproportionately affect single mothers. Affordability is closest to our core work. In this area, we call on all political parties to:

  • Adequately fund schools so all students can participate in education and extracurricular activities. This entails helping schools and families cover the costs of sending their child to school, including digital devices, school uniforms, textbooks, camps, excursions, elective subjects and speech or occupational therapy.
  • Continue supporting State Schools’ Relief and the Camps, Sports and Excursion Fund (whose funding ceases at the end of 2019).
  • Work with schools to better support and improve parent payment, personal devices and financial hardship guidelines so students experiencing financial disadvantage don’t miss out.
  • Provide a free Myki card to all primary and secondary school students whose parent or guardian has a health care card.

Fair access to education for every Victorian child creates a level playing field for the next generation. This prevents intergenerational repercussions of the structural poverty single mothers experience. Single mothers do a great job raising their children, despite the challenges they may face. As a society, we should celebrate and support them, instead of marginalising them.

 

The Council of Single Mothers and their Children Inc. (CSMC) is a non-profit organisation founded in 1969 by single mothers to secure a better life for themselves and their children. They achieve change by championing the voices and needs of single mother families and providing specialist support services.