Children at Papatoetoe South School had been practising for months for their visit to the annual primary schools choir festival.

Yet on the big night, only 16 of the 25-strong choir made it on to the hired bus to the Auckland Town Hall last November.

Some of the parents simply couldn't afford the night out, says principal Mark Barratt.

Tickets, a meal in town, petrol, parking and babysitters would have easily topped $100 - too much for South Auckland families struggling to pay for food and rent.

Choir teacher Kiri Tremewan says many children know their parents can't afford to pay for school events like this and feel embarrassed. "I had a boy crying in my class when the notice came out," she remembers. "He didn't want to take it home."

Mr Barratt says middle-class parents and their children tend to take these kind of educational experiences for granted. But they are usually out of reach for the 650 children at his school - almost evenly divided between Indian, Maori and Pacific Island pupils, with a few Pakeha and Asians.

The school cannot rely on parents to help out, he says. It asks for donations of $40 per student or $60 per family but makes no attempt to chase them up. About a quarter have paid this year, which he considers good in an economic downturn.

He stresses that government funding for most basic classroom needs is not bad. Papatoetoe South School gets $846,000 from taxpayers each year - including a top-up of $373 per student because of its low decile 2 ranking.

Each classroom has four PCs and eight laptops, plus video gear, enabling children to hold video conferences with school pupils in England.

The difficult part, says Mr Barratt, is showing them the rest of the world outside their suburb. For instance, most of his students have never been to Queen St, so the school takes them there.

It also takes them to the beach and to the snow to enjoy cheap activities like tobogganing and to learn outdoor problem-solving skills.

It wants to take them to Camp Adair at Hunua for a week next month. Associate principal Sue Berry says the camp costs more than $200 a head, which the school usually subsidises with charitable donations and charges parents $65.

But this year the Lion Foundation and a local pub charity turned the school down, leaving the school scrambling to find the money.

"A lot of our parents can't afford to pay for camp ... But I would say it's an essential activity for these kids," says Papatoetoe South associate principal Sue Berry. "It's about learning how to be independent and to have confidence in their abilities."

PAPATOETOE SOUTH PRIMARY
ROLL: 650
DECILE: 2
DONATIONS: $40 per student, $60 per family
GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS GRANT: $846,000
LOCALLY RAISED MONEY: $56,000


WHEN THE COMMUNITY PICKS UP THE TAB

Schools have to pay all or some of the costs for a large share of their budgets, usually by asking parents or local businesses for money. These are some of the main day-to-day items not covered by government funding.

ComputersSchools spend about $250 million a year on information technology but the Government only pays about $80 million. Parents pay a big chunk of the rest, either directly through donations and fees or indirectly via fundraising.

Owen Alexander, president of the Auckland Primary Principals Association, estimates that his school, Takapuna Intermediate, spends $344 per child a year on computer leases and technical support. He thinks the Government is trying to have it both ways by not paying most of the bill.

"As a country, we have decided that technology is a way forward for New Zealanders and so it needs to be put into schools but you know what? It's all funded out of locally raised funds."

School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr agrees. "Classroom programmes are underfunded and parents are being asked via locally raised funds to support that. Most of it is IT."

Education Minister Anne Tolley acknowledges schools need more help. She says $150 million is already going to schools to make sure they can access the Government's planned $5 billion broadband network. She also wants to improve professional development for teachers, so they have the skills to use the technology.

Non-teaching staff
Boards of trustees have to find the money from their general budgets to pay for most non-teaching positions, from office administrators to computer technicians.

Secondary Principals Association president Peter Gall says the skill levels and pay rates for these jobs have increased dramatically since schools became self-governing 20 years ago.

"Large secondary schools will have a business manager, a property manager. So these are relatively high-paid jobs and require highly skilled professional people."

He thinks the system is out of date.

"We never used to have technicians 10 years ago. We didn't have social workers but many schools now [do]."

Extra teachers
Although most teachers are still paid directly by the Government, about one in five are paid by school boards, which decide to use their operating budgets and/or locally raised funds to create extra positions.

In the last three years, says Lorraine Kerr, the Government has paid for an extra 5500 teachers but schools have added a further 7000 out of their own pockets.

However, these jobs are especially vulnerable in an economic downturn when money dries up. "Schools have really cut back," says Mr Alexander, citing special learning programmes and teacher aides as examples.

Former education minister Chris Carter takes a more sceptical view (see A6). The Labour education spokesman accuses some schools - notably North Shore principals who complained publicly about their financial plight last year - of overextending themselves by appointing specialist teachers to attract students in a competitive local market.

Children with disabilities
One of the biggest gaps is money for teaching physically and intellectually disabled children – known as "special needs" in education jargon. Officially the Government pays for this but it has been underfunded for years.

Papatoetoe South principal Mark Barratt says his school gets paid $8000 a year for each autistic child it takes but this covers only half the true cost. Over a year, he estimates the school can lose up to $80,000 teaching a group of very demanding children, who often disrupt the rest of the class.

Mrs Tolley describes special education funding as "a huge issue for schools". She says the Government has already committed an extra $18 million for high needs students but plans a review of the system to add flexibility.

Sport
Schools raise virtually all their own money for sports activities - a problem which draws a mixed response from principals. Mr Gall says you have to be careful about paying for sport because parents in wealthier areas tend to expect more from their schools.

"I talk to some schools and they're spending $200,000 to $400,000 a year on their sports budget. It's huge."

But Northcote College principal Vicki Barrie defends the place of sport in schools, for its own sake and for its positive effect on many non-academic pupils. "For some students ... the spin-off is that they are at school and actively engaged in the classroom as well."