School camps are in jeopardy, in a surprise side-effect of a new grant that is intended to reduce the cost of education for parents.
The new grant of $150 a year for every student will be available from next year to all state and integrated schools in deciles 1 to 7 that agree to stop asking parents for donations.
School principals initially greeted the news with delight. But the mood has soured for many mid-decile schools because the Government appears to be treating charges for school camps as "donations", so schools that accept the $150 grant may no longer be able to ask parents to pay for them.
Many schools charge each student $200 to $300 for a camp, so they would lose more revenue than they would gain from the $150 grant.
Laingholm School principal Martyn Weatherill, who has written a submission on the new grant for the Waitākere Area Principals' Association, said school budgets were so tight that some schools would be forced to cancel their camps.
"Some principals have said that they would have to take the discretionary [$150] grant to balance the books and if this means no camps, then this is a consequence of the funding model," he said.
Wellington Intermediate Principals' Association president Mary O'Regan said her decile 6 school, Maidstone Intermediate, planned to charge students $170 for next year's camp, but would have to cancel the camp if it accepted the $150 grant.
She also asks parents to pay a $100 annual "donation", $65 a year for materials in hard material and food technology classes, and a $50 "activity fee" to cover trips to museums and other educational activities, swimming lessons at the council pool, hired tutors in skills such as self-defence and subscriptions to an online maths program.
A Ministry of Education circular sent to schools last June says "payment cannot be compelled or enforced" for any of those things if they are part of the school curriculum.
The only exception is that payment can be enforced if children take home things made in technology classes - but the circular says schools "cannot insist that students take a finished project home".
On camps and trips, the circular says: "Students may not be excluded from attending a camp or going on a trip that is part of curriculum delivery because of an inability or unwillingness to pay a donation towards the activity's cost.
"It is reasonable for parents to be asked to contribute towards the cost of food and towards the costs which are involved in travel to and from the camp. Such a request is a request for a donation."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the law governing what is classed as a "donation" was not affected by the offer of the $150 grant.
"If schools choose to opt into the donations replacement scheme, they will no longer be able to request any parental donations," he said.
"Schools that choose not to opt into the scheme can continue to ask for donations as they do now."
The rules will not stop schools in the poorest areas from taking the $150 grant because most do not charge parents the full cost of camps or other activities anyway.
Shirley Maihi, of Finlayson Park School, a decile 1 primary school in Manurewa which expects to gain a net $148,500 a year from the $150 grant, said she held a parents' meeting to decide how much parents could be asked to pay towards each camp at the YMCA's Camp Adair.
"We say, 'Our camp is going to cost $220,' so people say, 'Let's sell chocolates.' They look at how they can fundraise," she said.
Neil Watson, of Ōtāhuhu College, another decile 1 school which expects to net an extra $130,000 a year from the grant, said the college asked parents for "a small contribution" towards camps, but did not charge for educational trips to places like Waitangi or the Chelsea sugar refinery.
But O'Regan said most mid-decile schools did ask parents to pay for materials and activities, even though they are classed as "donations".
"Every school breaks those rules," she said.
"There is a blind eye turned. We call things different things. We cannot offer those extra things if we don't, and they are so important, those experiences for the kids."