Some schools are making students pay fees for each subject they take - but is it legal? ANDREW LAXON and ALAN PERROTT report.
Revelations this week that students have been shut out of classes for not paying school course fees have started a legal row and revived debate over free education in this country.
Since the Herald broke the news that the Ministry of Education was investigating the legality of compulsory subject fees at Orewa College, responses from readers have flooded in.
By yesterday, the newspaper had received 17 e-mails and phone calls from Orewa College students or their parents, who were adamant that students had been excluded from classes because they had not paid "course fees" on top of the standard annual donation.
The principal of Orewa College, Kate Shevland, initially denied this week that any students had been kept out of classes.
But yesterday she acknowledged that "a small number of cases" had occurred and she apologised.
"I gave a clear directive to staff that no students were to be embarrassed over this issue," she wrote in a letter sent home to parents.
"However, there is the possibility of some members of such a large staff not being present at every meeting and some misunderstanding may have occurred."
Many Herald readers also sent e-mails complaining about course fees at other schools and questioning whether they had the right to charge them when primary and secondary education was supposed to be free.
Others defended the schools, saying they had to charge parents extra because the Government did not provide nearly enough money to run a modern curriculum.
At Orewa College, feelings have been running high about the way students were shut out of classes for non-payment in the first week of the school year.
"My fifth-form son started his school year off in exactly the same way as his older brother did last year - walking around the school grounds after being refused entry to some of his classes at Orewa College," wrote one parent.
"I did not pay his course fees of $230 at his course confirmation day as suggested by the school, simply because I did not have it."
The parent, who did not want to be identified, said the expensive course fees could influence parents' decisions over what courses their children took, regardless of the child's wishes.
"This is a restriction of sorts on the right to an education; if the financial situation of a family affects their child's course selection, it will mean that many popular and desirable subjects will only be selected by those with the financial means to pay for them."
Three fifth-formers wrote to say they had been kept out of classes until they could provide a receipt showing they had paid their fees.
One said she had been away for the week before term started - which the school had set aside for confirming students' courses and payment of course fees - and did not know she was meant to have paid when she returned.
"I spent the entire first day of my fifth-form year trying to see someone about paying my fees, trying to confirm my courses and explaining why I wasn't there for course confirmation.
"I tried to attend one of my classes but instead was blatantly embarrassed in front of 35 peers by being asked to leave because I hadn't paid my fees and I was meant to 'already know the circumstances'."
Other students, former students and parents said the same thing had happened at the college last year.
Yesterday, Ms Shevland said students should not have been excluded from classes. But she strongly defended the school's right to charge course fees on top of the standard annual donation, which is officially voluntary and cannot be enforced by schools.
She said Orewa College asked parents for an annual donation of only $125 a year, compared to as much as $500 at other state schools. It had received only half the amount owing in recent years.
Yet the school received much less money from the Government than poorer schools, because it was expected to be able to top up its state funding with donations from comparatively wealthy parents.
Schools in New Zealand are ranked in 10 socio-economic "deciles", which subdivide into 18 categories altogether.
The richest schools are decile 10 and the poorest decile 1.
About 16 per cent of the money given to schools for their operating budget each year - excluding money spent on property and teacher salaries - comes from this so-called decile funding, most of it from a fund labelled Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement. Figures obtained from the ministry yesterday show that as a decile 8 school, Orewa College receives $36.78 from this fund for each pupil.
The poorest of decile 1 schools get $682.98 a pupil - more than 18 times as much.
Ms Shevland said senior students from Year 11 (fifth form) upwards knew what their course fees would be six months ago as they chose their subjects for this year from a booklet that included all fees.
The school asked students to make their decisions by the end of the year so it could organise staffing and the timetable.
It then asked for confirmation in the week before school started, to allow for last-minute changes and ensure students could get straight to work when the year began.
Ms Shevland said it was vital to have numbers confirmed and fees paid before the year started to make sure classes were viable.
For instance, 12 students in a senior class could be financially marginal if some dropped out or did not pay their fees.
"It's no comfort to me to find out in July that of those 12 people only five are prepared to pay up. If I'd known that at the beginning, I wouldn't have run that class. I could have used that very valuable teacher to relieve class numbers somewhere else and have smaller classes in the junior school.
"So it's really an important administrative issue and we don't feel that we can just take people's word over whether they are going to pay."
Students did not have to pay the fees if there was genuine financial hardship but many parents seemed to have a philosophical objection to paying, as they believed education should be free.
Other schools have previously run into trouble on similar issues.
Upper Hutt College threatened in a newsletter two years ago to remove students from classes if subject fees were not paid.
The school later said the wording was a mistake and students would not be excluded.
In the same year, Auckland Grammar School asked parents of third-formers to bring $500 to an enrolment evening "to confirm acceptance of the place offered" - a move condemned as unacceptable by Education Minister Trevor Mallard.
Over the years several schools have controversially blocked students from attending the school ball or receiving the school yearbook or magazine unless outstanding fees - either course fees or donations - are paid.
And the practice of charging fees for individual subjects is now widespread. All principals the Herald spoke to yesterday described it as an essential part of providing the modern curriculum.
But is it legal to make students or their parents pay fees for individual subjects? The authority on this subject is a 1998 ministry circular, closely consulted by most schools, including Orewa College.
The circular says "a board of trustees may not make payment of a fee a prerequisite for enrolment or attendance of a domestic student".
It notes that school donations are often described as "school fees" but they must be voluntary and students must not be embarrassed by the school over non-payment.
Schools may charge for materials in practical courses, such as clothing and workshop technology, where the student gets to take the finished product home.
But it adds: "To a greater or lesser degree, teachers in all subject areas use various materials to assist them to deliver the curriculum.
"Some schools seek to recover the cost of these materials by charging parents for them. Such charges are very difficult to justify.
"It has already been stated ... that the right to free education implies that there should be no charge for materials used in the delivery of the curriculum. Only where there is a very clear take-home component would a board be on firm ground in levying a charge for materials."
The circular also warns against the growing practice of making students pay for workbooks or homework books, which can lead to fees of about $20 a subject in compulsory subjects such as English, maths and science.
It says workbooks lie somewhere between textbooks, which are traditionally free, and exercise books, which students are expected to pay for themselves.
Orewa College says it charges for workbooks because the students would have to buy them anyway and the schools can order them more cheaply.
But it allows students who do not want to buy them to use homework books in the library at lunchtime and before or after school.
The ministry has said this appears to be legal but the chairwoman of Parliament's education and science committee, Liz Gordon, said she doubted it was.
Behind the immediate controversy is a much wider debate over whether education should be free.
The Quality Public Education Coalition said schools were being forced to collect ever-increasing subject fees, "voluntary" donations and contributions to fundraising events because the Government had let operations grants fall so far behind the rate of inflation.
"In many cases now parents pay more than 10 per cent of the day-to-day cost of their children's education directly to schools," said chairwoman Linda Williams.
"It is common for these parent payments to reach well over $500 when Government funding through the operations grant may amount to just $5000 a pupil.
"This can only be described as 'creeping privatisation' of public education."
Some Herald readers have criticised parents' expectations of free education as wildly unrealistic.
"I find it hard to understand that parents still harp on the concept of free education," wrote one mother.
"To my knowledge it hasn't been free for years. I can quite understand their hard-nosed policies ... and before you jump at me I was like a lot of you, a single parent with two sons and, yes, it is hard.
"But if you approach the school, they are usually more than happy to make arrangements to drip-feed the fees."
The former chairman of one decile-10 primary school said if his school had relied on state funding alone it would have had to increase class sizes by 50 per cent and cut the curriculum in certain areas.
"It is the Government who need to act here, either by providing additional funding through the operating grants or giving the schools teeth to collect the fees from parents.
"I can tell you, it is a very frustrating system and we spend many hours discussing funding shortfalls.
"The Government must move away from this myth of a free education in New Zealand."
Head1: KEY ANSWERS
Body1: Can a board legally invoice parents for sums owed to the school?
Yes, but the invoice should not show the school donation as a compulsory payment. An invoice implies that the listed amounts are compulsory, particularly if the words "fee" or "levy" are used instead of "donation". To invoice parents for "school fees" at the start of the year is particularly misleading.
Can a board legally ask for payment in advance for various activities which it knows are likely to occur during the course of the year?
Yes, but a board cannot insist on payment in advance. Some boards adopt a policy of seeking a "once-only" payment from parents at the start of the year. Such a payment may cover everything from class trips to the cost of special materials and swimming lessons. Some parents might prefer such a method. But if the items and costs are unspecified, they may wonder whether they will get their money's worth. Or they may wish their child to be involved in some of the activities but not all. If a parent prefers to pay as they go, a board cannot insist on payment in advance for the sake of administrative efficiency.
Can a board legally charge fees for attendance at school camps?
Not if attendance at the camp is a compulsory part of the school's total curriculum or part of the content of a particular course at the school. But it is reasonable for parents to be asked to help towards food and travel costs to and from the camp.
If parents do not pay the school donation, can a board legally refuse a student items funded by the donation?
Not if it results in unfair discrimination against some students. And there may be serious financial implications in such a practice. Some boards have a policy of funding certain items or activities entirely from the school donation - like the school magazine, student identity cards, subsidised travel for sports teams, etc. In cases where parents decline to pay the donation, a board may wish to withhold from their children items such as those referred to above, which are funded entirely from the school donation. While boards have an undeniable right to do this, such an action might have serious implications because it implies that the school donation is not voluntary at all but, at least in part, a payment for goods and services
Can a board legally use a debt-collecting agency to collect money owed to the school by parents?
Yes, but not to collect an unpaid school donation. Each board will decide whether it is appropriate to use a debt-collection agency to collect money owed to the school by parents. But no board should employ an agency in an attempt to force parents to pay the school donation, which parents cannot be compelled to pay. The ministry's website has full advice to schools on payments by parents.
Ministry of Education
Some schools are making students pay fees for each subject they take - but is it legal? ANDREW LAXON and ALAN PERROTT report.