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"It’s okay Mum, I didn’t want to do it anyway."

By DR LISA O’BRIEN

Imagine your child is passionate about a particular subject at school.

You’ve never seen them so excited about learning before. Perhaps it’s the first time they’ve shown a talent in something academic?

Now imagine having to tell your child that he or she can’t take that class because you can’t afford the extra costs that go with it.

Or worse, hearing your child say: “It’s okay Mum, I didn’t want to do it anyway” – as they try to save your feelings because they know you don’t have the money.

Tragically, thousands of Australian families experience challenges like this every day.

We live in a country where we are blessed with an excellent public school system providing free and equal access to families of all backgrounds.

But The Smith Family has been hearing increasingly from financially stretched parents that the costs of attending government schools are becoming a barrier to a comprehensive education.

We’ve heard stories of schools advising children not to choose particular subjects because of the expense.

Of parents seeking personal loans and taking out new credit cards to pay for school-related costs.

Of children having to sit out excursions because families can’t find $30.

We decided to itemise the basic needs for children at government primary schools to try and arrive at a better understanding of the financial challenges facing families.

From what we found it’s no surprise so many low income families are struggling.

We estimate the real costs of attending a government primary school – from uniforms, shoes and stationery through to the charges that are part of daily attendance and study – are upwards of $2000 for one child over a year.

For a low income family, $2000 is a big ask.

Before a child even walks in the front gate the average parent is looking at spending more than $700 on uniforms, shoes and stationery – and that’s a conservative estimate based on the least expensive purchases at nationally accessible chain stores.

And once inside, and depending on whether the child goes to primary or high school, parents encounter a whole new raft of expenses.

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Certain subjects – because of the materials involved – attract extra charges (eg: design and technology, home economics).

Add on things like excursions and textbooks and the costs mount up.

Back to school

Increasingly as early as primary school, children are also expected to have either a laptop or tablet and access to broadband at home.

Contrast that with the knowledge that in Australia’s most disadvantaged communities, one-third of children do not have access to the internet at home.

The result is that a significant number of Australian kids are being left behind.

We know that government schools do their absolute very best to help struggling families.

They work within tight budgets and go to great lengths to involve vulnerable families, such as offering flexible payment plans for compulsory charges.

But even with these things – including operating school discretionary funds, which are limited pools of financial assistance to help financially challenged families offset costs – many just aren’t coping.

We hope that needs-based funding – which underpins the Gonksi reforms and has the support of federal, state and territory governments – will make a difference.

For example, by giving schools the funds they need to open up areas of study that have previously been off-limits to some students because of the expense.

We’re also calling for a national, comprehensive study to identify the costs of public education in Australia and assess the impact on families and the participation of children in schools.

No such research has ever been carried out in Australia. How can we address the problem if we don’t know its full scale?

Until then, for many struggling Australian families, charities like The Smith Family remain the only thing enabling children to fully participate in a comprehensive public school education.

And in a country that prides itself on its fairness, that’s a great shame.

The Smith Family is a national, independent children’s charity helping young Australians in need to get the most out of their education to break the cycle of disadvantage. You can reach them online at www.thesmithfamily.com.au and read more about the real cost of public school here.

Having worked in senior management roles across the public, not-for-profit and commercial sectors over the last two decades, at The Smith Family Dr Lisa O’Brien leads Australia’s major education-oriented children’s charity with a mission to create opportunities for young Australian in need by providing long-term support for their participation in education.

Do you think back-to-school costs are too high? 

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