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State high schools are asking parents for hundreds of dollars in fees to pay for their child's "free" education.

A Herald survey undertaken as schools open for the new year this week, reveals parents face paying up to $740 at state schools and as much as $1496 a child at integrated schools.

All but a handful of secondary schools ask for a voluntary contribution as they try to balance the ever-tightening budget.

For parents, the annual donation adds to the back-to-school budget, which is already having to cope with uniforms (about $400), stationery, travel, school trips and extra-curricular activities such as sport.

The Herald survey of 134 state and integrated secondary schools showed the average donation asked for one child was $152. But it also revealed that the level of the donations requested varies wildly.

Responding to the survey, Associate Education Minister David Benson-Pope said he would launch an investigation, asking boards of trustees to justify the "outright magnitude" of the amount of some requests.

He is likely to target schools such as Auckland Grammar, which tops the state school table, asking parents for $740 for one child. That figure rises to $1480 for a family with more than one child at the school.

The survey showed that on average integrated schools (former private schools) ask for the most from parents, but they receive no Government funding for their privately owned land and buildings.

Rosmini College on the North Shore asks for the largest donation - $1496.

At the other end of the scale, a few schools will ask for nothing or a nominal fee as they adopt a "user-pays" philosophy and try to balance the books by charging for extra materials needed for specific subjects.

Many of those schools, in the country's poorest communities, say this is the fairest approach and does not penalise struggling parents.

Those schools are also eligible for extra Government funds because of their low income areas.

Mr Benson-Pope said he was concerned about the disparity between the amounts asked for and the level of some school fees.

"I will be looking at this issue in detail in the coming year," he said. "I want to know if the fees some schools levy are justified."

The minister said he also wanted to ensure that fees were not limiting the choice of schools a student might be able and entitled to attend.

Several schools said they were increasing the amount they asked for, but most were determined to stay at the same level as previous years. Two had even dropped their fees.

The survey also showed, unsurprisingly, that the highest decile schools ask for the highest donations and poorer schools tend to request less. But almost all schools had common ground in their argument that the operational funding is a fraction of what is needed to run a school in today's economic climate.

The Government argues schools are now receiving $246 million more than they were in 1999, with per-pupil operational funding rising by 13.3 per cent in the past six years.

Exact figures are difficult to pin down because the decentralised education management system means boards of trustees use the fees for different purposes and record them under different expenses.

But it is estimated that parents will end up paying about 15 per cent of a school's total revenue.

Bill English, National education spokesman, said the Herald survey showed the huge number of mid-level schools were suffering the most.

"The parents can't afford a huge contribution and the decile funding does not compensate for that."

Chris Haines, president of the New Zealand School Trustees Association, said the Government had to move to put the "free" back into "free state education".

"School boards of trustees face an increasing struggle to make ends meet and more and more are being forced to turn to locally raised funds to maintain basic programmes."

But Mr Benson-Pope said free education was enshrined in law.

"For schools to say they are having to dip into operational funds, or are being forced to raise money from parents, to pay for teachers to deliver the curriculum is just not true."

The Government was paying out more money for improved internet technology, extra teachers and professional development.

Any move to rein in the amount of money asked for is likely to meet strong opposition from schools, boards of trustees and parents.

Mike Mee's daughter Jessica starts her first year at Epsom Girls Grammar this week. With a contribution of $575 it is near the top of the Herald list.

But Mr Mee said: "Her school has a very good reputation and as such I'm happy to pay a bit extra for the additional facilities and curricula options offered."

About 758,300 students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools, up 4900 from last year.

- Additional reporting: NZPA