An Auckland primary school is asking parents of pre-schoolers to fork out up to $100 for a transition-to-school programme.
Owairoa Primary School in East Auckland runs "Super Start", an optional programme which prepares children under 5 for aspects of school life and teaches curriculum basics such as reading, oral language and number skills.
The school recommends children attend between five to 10 of the two hour $10 sessions.
The Education Ministry said last night that the programme was "extremely unusual" but wasn't in breach of laws providing for a free education.
Education sector officials have raised concerns about the scheme though, including NZEI executive member Lynda Stuart who feared parents might feel obligated to pay for it.
"It sounds like a form of fundraising, but it risks falling into obligatory payment territory if parents are given the impression that the programme is necessary for their child to have the best possible start to school," she said.
"Parents should not feel obligated to send their child to such a programme - a good quality early childhood education will prepare most children to start school, equipped with confidence, necessary social skills and eager to learn."
Stuart hadn't heard of any other school charging for a transition programme.
"The programme sounds great, but it's the sort of introduction to school that most schools offer nearly-fives free of charge.
"It sits in a grey area, as you can't charge for teaching enrolled students, but these children haven't officially started school yet."
Owairoa Primary School principal Alan McIntyre said Super Start, which has been running for more than a decade, had been extremely successful.
"It's quite clear kids who have been through the programme have a great start to school.
"They get to meet other kids, look around the school and get an idea of what school will be like."
If a family wasn't able to pay the fees, they wouldn't be turned away.
"We're always inclusive," McIntyre said. "It's the same as school trips. If someone can't pay, they go anyway."
About 60 to 80 per cent of new entrants completed the scheme. Owairoa also offers free pre-school visits.
Labour's Education spokesman Chris Hipkins said he sympathised with parents who wondered why they had to pay for such a scheme.
"I think ultimately the school's trying to do the right thing by getting kids soundly transitioned to school, but I think parents can rightly ask 'why are we being asked to pay for this?'
"Surely this is a core function of what schools should be providing.
"Government funding should be sufficient that parents wouldn't need to pay."
Education undersecretary David Seymour believed Super Start was a great idea but understood there could be concerns around it.
"Does it become a two-tier system where parents who can pay get access to this good school and parents who can't, get subtly fed to other schools?"
He didn't think the costs were high enough to limit the programme to high-income families, however.
"Fifteen per cent of New Zealanders are still paying $50 a week to smoke two packets of cigarettes a week...
"I recognise that some people are pretty hard up but if you're going to bring children into the world you've got to be prepared for the fact that from time to time... the state's not going to take care of all of it."
New Zealand School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr believed the programme was a great initiative.
"I commend the school for being proactive about giving kids the best start at school.
"The school still have the obligation to offer kids the best education they can so it's not as if kids that don't take part miss out entirely."
Criticism of the programme comes eight months after the Weekend Herald revealed two prestigious Auckland schools - Auckland Grammar School and Cornwall Park District School - were ordered by the Ministry of Education to stop asking parents to pay for the right to enter their children in out-of-zone ballots.
Both schools received strongly worded letters from the ministry after complaints it got from parents who were asked to fork out between $50 and $75 for ballots.
The ministry also issued an Auckland-wide "critical reminder" to principals to remind them they are not allowed to charge for ballots.
The Education Act 1989 states every student who is not an international student is entitled to free enrolment and education.
"As such, a board is not legally able to enforce a compulsory payment to enter students into a ballot for out-of-zone places," Katrina Casey, of the Ministry of Education said at the time.
It was later revealed Mt Albert Grammar and Epsom Girls Grammar School also charged for out of zone ballots, and St Mary's College charged for all enrolment applications.