Parents Are Being Charged for ‘Free’ Education in Victoria

A report by the Victorian Auditor-General has found that parents in public schools are being charged for items and activities that should be free under state legislation and policy. It says that parent payments no longer just support free instruction, but have become essential to its provision.

The report says that there has been a “fundamental failure” in the arrangements for parent payments. The Department of Education (DET) has failed to monitor and enforce compliance to its parent payment policy and there are no consequences for schools who do not comply. Parent payment requests are not sufficiently itemised by schools and consequently it is not clear to parents what they must pay for and what they can choose to pay. The report says there is a need for greater transparency in how parent payments are requested by schools.

The Auditor-General demonstrates that parent payments have become critical to the ongoing viability of public schools. Schools generate almost as much income themselves – $626 million in 2013–14 – as they receive in self-managing funds from DET – $771 million in 2013–14.

On average, each Victorian government school derived over $205,000 in parent payments in 2012. Payments have risen by $70 million since 2009, an increase of 29 per cent. However, schools with more disadvantaged students derive less income from parent payments. On average, schools with more disadvantaged students receive about half the payments that schools with less disadvantaged students receive.

The Victorian Education Act requires the government to deliver free instruction in the standard curriculum program to all students under the age of 20 years. The standard curriculum program is made up of eight key learning areas—the arts, English, health and physical education, languages other than English, mathematics, science, studies of society and environment, and technology.

The Act permits school councils to charge parents fees to cover costs for goods, services or other things provided to a student that are not directly related to the provision of free instruction. They may also raise additional funds through voluntary financial contributions from parents.

However, the Act does not define ‘free instruction’.

Consequently, 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. [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 noncompliance varied significantly.

The report recommended that DET should update its parent payment policy and guidance material to provide clear guidance on acceptable parent payment practices. It also recommended that DET should regularly review school parent payment policies and practices, and intervene where those practices are identified as breaching legislation or policy requirements.

Trevor Cobbold

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