Interesting article from Henrietta Cook in today’s Age about a Melbourne public school charging parents a fee to secure their enrolment. It’s a no-no in a system that is supposed to provide free education for all comers. The definition of ‘free’ is interesting: schools are allowed to charge for some things (consumables etc) and not others (activities deemed to be compulsory and school fees of course).
A fee to secure an enrolment is common in the non government sector, which also receives significant government funding but which can make its own rules about such matters. And compulsory school fees are necessary to keep those schools operating at the level they and their school community expect.
For public schools it’s a very different situation. The prohibition on levying compulsory fees is a reminder of the government’s commitment to provide a quality public education that is accessible to all. Some might question whether the government actually delivers on this promise but the principle remains, nevertheless.
There may well be financial reasons for public schools to levy compulsory fees for enrolment on parents. Most of us are in real need of extra cash. In terms of a compulsory enrolment fee, however, there is another perspective worth raising.
It is not unknown for parents to ‘shop around’ for their children’s education. Some will enrol their children in more than one school, perhaps pending the outcome of an application to a select entry school, a non government school or a public school outside their local neighbourhood (remember that all children are guaranteed entry at their local public school). In the post compulsory years some students will hedge their bets against the chances of obtaining employment, an apprenticeship or even entry to their preferred university course. The problem with this is that it leaves schools not knowing where they stand.
At small scale this is not much of an issue, but at scale it presents a significant issue that the education department has been unable to respond effectively to, despite repeated requests, in recent years. Even though it is at the extreme end of the scale I’ll use our school to illustrate the point.
We are a Year 11 and 12 school of around 1800 students. Our best students are among the best in the state and we also cater for those marginally connected to school. We’re proud of the fact that we cater for all comers. But because of the age of our students they have other options: TAFE, apprenticeship and work. Many students will enrol in case they can’t get the ‘other opportunity’ they are seeking. Some will enrol with us and a neighbouring non government school. Some of our Year 12’s will re-enrol at this time of the year because they’re uncertain about their ATAR and whether they’ll get into the university course they want.
We have to plan on some basis and I think it’s not unreasonable to do so on the basis that a parent has completed an enrolment form, sat down with their child and selected subjects and submitted the enrolment to us. Along the way they’ve probably attended an information session and been supported through course counselling etcetera. The steps for us are to accept enrolments, decide how many classes of different subjects we will be running and then employ staff to teach those classes. I can do this because I know that X students = X dollars = X teachers.
Now if a handful of young people decide not to honour their enrolment it probably makes not a great deal of difference. Despite the fact that each student brings with them around $8000 in funding to our school, we can handle a few changes. Our schools take a census on the last school day in February and, subject to an April/May audit, this is the enrolment figure on which we are funded.
But sometimes we get unusually large changes in enrolments and we are left carrying the teachers’ salaries with no revenue to cover them. Typically, by the time of census, we will have taken over 100 students off our books because they have decided not to proceed with their enrolment. Five years ago, we had a figure of over 160. That’s a loss of over $1m in a single year. Admittedly some new enrolments come in too, but these students will have different programs and different subject selections. Try planning around that, and try getting support from the education department when your budget is undermined by these changes. If you want an argument for a school having the right to confirm enrolments, that’s one right there.
I expect our particular issue is confined largely to the state’s nine senior secondary schools which have almost their entire student populations in the years where students will seek other options. Over six years we have argued unsuccessfully for the department to put in place a tolerance factor to recognise our needs. At one stage we got a vague promise in the minister’s office from the infamous Nino Napoli that was never acted upon.
In our situation one option might be to change parents a fee on enrolment that would be then deducted from other compulsory charges they would pay during the school year. That might be refundable if the reason for not taking up the enrolment was genuine. It might also encourage parents to make a genuine commitment to enrolment. Such an approach might have wider applicability.
So by all means rail against schools charging fees to confirm enrolments. But think about the issues we deal with in schools when our budgets are already inadequate and some parents/students consider the completion of an enrolment form as a vague indication of interest rather than a binding commitment.
Unless the department wants to casualise the workforce I can see no easy solution, but some recognition of the difficulties our schools face would be nice.