Earlier this week, The Age revealed that parents were asked to pay $270 to enrol their children at a public high school in Melbourne. The Age also reported that another school is charging for sex education classes. Such fees are inexcusable, unethical and illegal in public schools.
It is not known whether other schools charge fees for enrolling students, but Cate Hall, the president of Our Children, Our Schools, told the ABC that it was not the only school asking for down payments on enrolments. There are also widespread concerns about fees and levies in public schools. An Auditor-General’s report earlier this year found significant non-compliance with legislative requirements for free education in Victoria with parents being charged for items that should be free.
Under Victorian education legislation instruction in the standard curriculum program must be provided free to all students in public schools. Free instruction includes learning and teaching, instructional supports, materials and resources, administration and facilities required to provide the standard curriculum program. The standard curriculum consists of the arts, English, health and physical education, languages other than English, mathematics, science, studies of society and environment and technology.
However, the legislation also allows for three categories of parent payments to schools – essential education items, optional extras and voluntary financial contributions.
Schools can request parents to pay for a number of “essential education” items to support instruction in the standard curriculum. These include:
- items which students take possession of, including textbooks and stationery;
- materials for learning and teaching where the student consumes or takes possession of the finished articles (for example, home economics, ceramics, photography, catering);
- school uniform (where applicable);
- travel costs incurred in the course of receiving the instruction from a teacher or other person;
- essential services associated with, but not considered to be part of, instruction in the standard curriculum program, such as costs associated with camps and excursions which all students are expected to attend (for example, transport and entrance costs).
Schools can request payment for optional extras. These include:
- instructional support material, resources and administration in addition to the standard curriculum program (e.g. student computer printing for personal use);
- extra-curricular programs or activities offered in addition to the standard curriculum program (e.g. instrumental music);
- school-based performances, productions and events;
- materials for subjects where the payment sought is the difference between the basic materials/services required for access to the standard curriculum program and higher cost alternatives which may be more desirable (e.g. the use of more expensive materials);
- materials and services offered in addition to the standard curriculum program (e.g. school magazines).
Schools can also request voluntary financial contributions from parents. However, requests for voluntary financial contributions are limited to the initial notice to all parents and one reminder notice. It is not acceptable to use coercion or to harass parents for any payments.
Schools must ensure students are not treated differently, denied access to the ‘standard curriculum program’, or refused instruction on the basis of payments not being made for essential education items, optional extras or voluntary financial contributions. Principals must ensure any record of payments or contributions is confidential. The public identification of students or their parents or guardians who have or have not made a payment or contribution is unacceptable and must not occur in any circumstances.
Further information on parental payments to public schools in Victoria can be obtained from the Education Department website.
The report by the Victorian Auditor-General said that “parent payments have evolved from being used to support free instruction to being essential to its provision.” It found that each year parents are being asked to pay more. In 2013, they paid $310 million to schools, or $558 per student. This was an increase of $70 million, or 29 per cent, since 2009.
The report was highly critical of the failure of the Department of Education (DET) to monitor compliance with departmental policies:
Although DET has developed a parent payment policy and supporting guidance for schools, it takes no responsibility for monitoring and enforcing school compliance with these. This means there are no consequences for schools that charge parents for items that should be provided for free. [p.vii]
In effect, parents are being charged for items and activities that should be free under legislation and policy. [p.x]
The report found that DET does not know how much money parents are being asked to pay to its schools, for what items, and whether this complies with requirements under the Act. The Auditor-General’s office surveyed 366 schools and identified that only 250 had parent payment policies. None of those fully complied with DET’s policy requirements and the degree of their non-compliance varied significantly.
The report found that there is no clear understanding of the difference between items included under free instruction and essential education or optional extras. It said that many items that should be provided for free are being charged for. These include:
- ‘class sets’ of 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’.
Following the Auditor-General’s report, the Education Minister, James Merlino, requested the Department to conduct an independent review of its parent payment policies, including how the application of these policies is monitored across the system. The review was contracted to PTR Consulting and was due to be completed by the end of last August.
The extensive abuse of charges to parents in Victorian public schools is unlikely to be confined to that state. It raises the issue of how many public schools in other states are charging for items that should be free. The National Education Ministers’ Council should launch an independent public inquiry on charges to parents in public schools and ensure that public education is free.