EDUCATION: The “hidden costs” of a free education in Aotearoa

The “hidden costs” of a free education in Aotearoa

The Equality Network

Tuesday 29 August

The Equality Network is asking for politicians to commit to a truly free education, which will benefit all children, irrespective of their household incomes.

Members of the Equality Network, a non-partisan organisation of 37 members united by the vision of a more equal Aotearoa New Zealand, say that the hidden costs of education are putting unnecessary additional stresses on our poorest families.

These costs start with Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), for example the fees beyond the 20 hours subsidy from the Government, the hidden costs of non-qualified teachers and the costs of poor provision of education in poorer areas.

Low-income households with school students are then faced with the many hidden costs at school. These include voluntary “donations” that parents are expected to pay, digital stationery packs, Education Outside the Classroom, co-curricular sport and cultural activities, examination fees,  ‘specialist’ consultations to provide evidence of the need for additional support, family-subsidised teacher aide hours and supplementary private tutoring such as Kip McGrath. Children also miss out on key learning opportunities through overseas trips and often find it difficult to cover uniform costs or to buy season-appropriate clothing, for example wearing shorts instead of pants in winter.

Figures from ASG suggest that school education costs in 2016 ranged between $2,079 and $3,592 depending on the age of the child including fees, clothing, computers, travel and extra-curricular costs.* This is an average of $2,835.50 per child.

Hidden costs also apply for tertiary students, in the form of loans and allowances, and non-tuition service charges levied by institutions.

According to Lynda Stuart, Equality Network member and Te Riu Roa NZEI President, funding freezes in education have put unnecessary strain on schools and have meant that parents have had to pick up extra costs. She says that in 2015, schools asked for $124.9 million in donations from parents, up from $113 million in 2014.

“We believe every child has the right to the best education in the world, and that New Zealand can afford to pay for it. But Government funding has not kept pace with need and the growing costs of education. That means those who can’t afford to pay extra for their education risk missing out.”

In response to the Government’s freeze on operations grant in 2016, Te Riu Roa undertook a survey asking school principals how they were planning to cope. Around 40 percent said they were considering cutting back on the hours of teacher aides and other support staff. Thirteen percent said they were looking to increase parent donations. Many schools said they couldn’t ask parents to pay more, as they were unable to afford what they were asked for now.

“This is not fair on any family.  But when parents can’t afford to pay any donations at all – which principals report is a growing reality – schools are forced to find ways to reduce costs, like cutting back on teacher aides or other learning resources. This always means kids miss out.

“Teachers and educators find it hard to fathom why the Government would choose to short change children’s education, when there is so much evidence about the amazing positive impact that a great education can have on a child’s life.”

Former principal of Otumoetai College in Tauranga, and National Secretary of Closing the Gap Peter Malcolm says that the funding freeze, in real terms, since 2010, has majorly affected schools.

Malcolm, who is also one of the founders of the Equality Network, says schools need to be better funded to cover the basic costs of education so families are not forced to cover costs like NCEA courses, which effectively bars poorer students from taking part.

He says that countries with their best academic results, such as Finland, have properly free education, including tertiary studies. “If we removed the hidden costs of education and made it properly free for all children, we would create a more just and fair Aotearoa New Zealand which allows every child, regardless of the income level of its household, to thrive. We also need to provide more resources for schools that target low-achieving students in order to help them succeed.”

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), also members of the Equality Network, says that the fact that one in six children received financial assistance to pay their NCEA fees in 2016 shows that many families are struggling with the hidden costs of a free education.

CPAG Spokesperson Professor John O’Neill, Director at the Institute of Education, Massey University, says that NCEA fees are one of a range of unnecessary hurdles to completion of NCEA and other qualifications on the Framework that students require to get into tertiary courses and improving their life chances.

“Preventing high-achieving young people from low-income backgrounds to prosper because of ‘user pays’ dogma is simply immoral,” says Professor O’Neill.

“CPAG insists that NCEA fees be abolished. They are a financial barrier and an additional stress on already stretched parents. It is dreadful to think that in today’s society parents are faced with the reality of having to pay to have their child’s NCEA success formally recognised.”

“It took far too to many years for Government to accept that requiring families to pay to secure Special Assessment Conditions for their children seriously disadvantaged children from families living in poverty. The same is still happening with NCEA fees. This unfairness has to stop now.”

CPAG’s education policy recommends that the Government provide a 100 percent subsidy in all decile 1 to 4 secondary schools for NCEA and scholarship examination fees, as well as free breakfast and lunch in decile 1 to 4 schools.

Professor O’Neill is also calling for a better taxation system which would generate income for free, high-quality education. This could be achieved through tax on high wealth and for a higher tax rate on top incomes above $100,000. He also suggested a more comprehensive education system with wrap-around services including before and after-school clubs to mitigate paid childcare; free breakfast, fruit and lunch for all poorer schools (to avoid the stigma of ‘opting-in’) as well as free dental, medical, counsellors, nurses, social workers and family budgeting services.

Principal of Auckland’s Massey High School, Glen Denhim,  says that the Government must support schools to do more for children from poorer backgrounds. “When a child from a disadvantaged home starts school, their development can be 19 months behind that of their peers. We have a special duty to the poorest children for whom education is the best and often the only route out of poverty. In the twenty-first century it is not acceptable that family background and geography have such an effect on a child’s educational outcomes. We must work together to close the education gaps in our education system.”

Mark Potter, principal at Berhampore Primary School in Wellington, says every child in New Zealand has a right to a quality, free education – but not all are getting this. “Effectively we’ve had a funding freeze in place which has made it very difficult for schools to provide for children.”

He says this funding freeze has meant that schools have stopped providing resources that they should be, for example by not painting school buildings, or halting the purchase of new library books. “We need to make sure we’ve got better funding so all the children have access to friends, access to their community, access to learning. We will be a much richer society for it.”

The Equality Network is asking for Government to commit to better funding of the education sector so it can provide a free education for all children, without the hidden costs. Te Riu Roa is also asking for a major funding jolt for schools to cover the costs of things like better support and training for teachers to teach Māori and Pasifika kids, more support for children with special needs and to allow for smaller class sizes in years four to eight.


The Equality Network is asking for a commitment from the incoming Government for increased educational funding to ensure every child and young person has access to free, quality public education that allows them to reach their full potential; and

It is also asking for a huge boost to retraining and skills programmes to give people a better chance to find a job.

*ASG Planning for Education Index 2016: