This afternoon I would like to make a contribution on the Victorian Auditor General’s report on additional school costs for families. In short this report examines whether funding adequately supports the delivery of free education in this state, whether schools appropriately manage parent payments to support free instruction and whether the Department of Education and Training has oversight of school approaches to parent payments.
This is a welcome report because it adds some clarity around the issue of a lack of transparency in the system. Today the Minister for Education, James Merlino, in his response to the report said that there needs to be a proper examination of the cost shifting that has occurred — costs going back onto parents as opposed to the state government over a period of time. He has also called for greater transparency with respect to community and parent contributions to the education system.
As we know, education is one of the most important elements of a child’s upbringing, and therefore access to and the opportunity for a first class education, whether it be at the early childhood stage or in primary or secondary school or post school, is absolutely paramount. In the state’s primary and secondary schools the Victorian government provides free instruction in the standard curriculum program. However, if we were to talk to any parent in our respective electorates, particularly at the beginning of a school year, those conversations would be about the exorbitant costs that parents pick up as a result of sending their children to school. It has certainly been a conversation I have been part of over the last four or five weeks. Whether it be purchasing a new or second hand school uniform, a sports uniform, a school bag, textbooks, exercise books, stationery or paying for camps, excursions and swimming programs, the cost can run into the thousands of dollars. It is becoming more common for students to have their own devices. I know this from one of my electorate officers who has recently bought an iPad and laptop for her daughter, who attends a state school and has just started her secondary school journey.
If we look to the findings in the report, and in particular to the Auditor General’s comments on page vii, we see that each year parents are being asked to pay more for their child’s education. In 2013 they paid a massive $310 million in additional school costs, a rise of 29 per cent since 2009. This figure does not include school uniforms or stationery. This can cause many families to experience severe financial stress, particularly if they have more than one child at home.
In the past, the Victorian government made school maintenance allowances available, which provided more than 200 000 Victorian students from low income families with up to $300 a year to help cover the cost of sending a child to school. However, under the previous government the Victorian education maintenance allowance was cut, leaving low income families and their children to fend for themselves. In fact in some families children were kept at home simply because they did not have the right school uniform or the right textbooks. They simply could not afford them.
Of course they did miss out on excursions and camps because their families simply could not afford it. Yet unfortunately, as I said, the previous government cut the education maintenance allowance completely.
The Auditor General goes on to state that the principals have pointed to the inadequacy of school funding as the main reason for increasing parent payments. Over the last four years more than $1 billion was cut from Victoria’s education system by the previous government. That does not include the $1.2 billion that was cut from the TAFE system.
This has left our education system dramatically under resourced, with students suffering as a result. In fact schools went into deficit to cover the cuts they suffered as a result of the previous government’s policies. One of those schools is very close to me — Bellarine Secondary College. It had to slash its Victorian certificate of applied learning funding.