State schools banned from pressing parents to fund learning essentials

Victorian state schools have been banned from pressing parents to make voluntary payments on curriculum essentials such as stationery, devices, camps and excursions, in a crackdown principals fear will force them to make deep cuts to their educational programs.

Canberra camps, museum visits, sports carnivals and subscriptions to popular educational software would all be at risk from the loss of a critical source of funding, principals say.

Principals fear camps and excursions will become less affordable under the new rules.Credit:Rodger Cummins

The state Education Department said it was strengthening the rules after it found some schools had breached core principles of the policy regarding voluntary financial contributions and put undue pressure on parents to chip in.

State schools are permitted to ask parents to contribute to a long list of essential and non-essential materials and activities, ranging from library books and digital devices the school owns to student wellbeing programs and upgrades to grounds and buildings.

But the strengthened policy compels schools to inform parents that all such payments are voluntary and forbids them from invoicing families or implying the payment is compulsory.

Australian Principals Federation acting president Tina King said state schools relied on voluntary payments to buy essentials they could not afford with their limited government funding.

Tina King, acting president of the Australian Principals Federation, says the policy risks driving more students into the private school system.Credit:Jason South

Victorian state schools are the lowest-funded in the country, with per-student funding about 7 per cent below the national average. Voluntary parent payments rose to a record $400 million last year.

“Many innovative and valued programs are only able to be offered in many schools if parents continue to pay for them,” Ms King said. “In some schools parental contributions make up half the expenditure on resources.”

Schools were briefed on the policy last week and told it will take effect from the start of 2022, irrespective of budgetary plans schools have made or communications they have sent out to families this year.

“The department will closely monitor the financial impact of the clarified and strengthened policy on all schools and will continue to examine funding arrangements,” principals were told on September 1.

Schools must not prevent any student from accessing curriculum essentials or joining essential excursions if their parents do not make a voluntary contribution; they must cover the shortfall out of their budgets.

Jason Walker, principal of Mont Albert Primary in Melbourne’s east, said if fewer parents paid, schools would face a choice between withdrawing some curricular programs and materials or raiding funding from elsewhere in the budget.

“We use voluntary payments on our instrumental music program, lunchtime clubs, excursions and camps,” Mr Walker said. “If you applied this parent payment policy, where we haven’t got the ability to charge on a user-pays basis, I don’t know how schools … are going to be able to provide these opportunities.”

Heath Matheson, a parent and member of the school council at Mount Beauty Primary School in the state’s north-east, said the rural school feared it might have to cancel its year 6 Canberra camp next year if the policy results in lost revenue.

“We’re remote, so everything that is city-based involves a bus trip, so prices add up pretty quickly,” Mr Matheson said. “Something like the Canberra camp is $350 a head that I guess would need to be raised elsewhere because there is zero slack in the budget.”

Ms King said the policy risked driving more students into the private school system if state schools had to revert to a more “bare-bones” curriculum.

A 2015 Victorian Auditor-General’s report on school payments found they had evolved from supporting free instruction in government schools to being essential to its provision.

The report found the department’s checks and balances on school payments were inadequate. The department told schools this month this was a key reason for its review on voluntary payment policies.

The Eduction Department has been contacted for comment.

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