Families named and shamed over back-to-school ‘voluntary’ contribution payments

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The frustration in the caller’s voice was obvious.

The woman gave her name as ‘Rachel’ and called Victorian talkback radio station 3AW’s Friday afternoon drive-time host Jacqui Felgate to talk about a question that seems to be on a growing number of parents’ minds as the new school year starts.

Are ‘voluntary’ contributions requested by government schools really voluntary? Or are they compulsory?

Rachel’s children were caught in the crossfire of the issue and said their school changed their policies this year to omit important school supplies for students whose parents didn’t pay the fee.

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“The school that my kids go to, the stationery pack has previously been a separate, compulsory payment – and it’s been very clear that the students won’t get the pack until it’s paid, and the remainder of the fees have been a voluntary contribution,” Rachel said. “This year, I noticed that it wasn’t actually separate and confirmed with the school that it’s now rolled into the voluntary contribution.”

After returning to school on Wednesday last week, her children – as well as several of their friends – were told they hadn’t got their stationery packs because their parents hadn’t paid.

“It’s obviously left a lot of us confused because the word ‘voluntary’ sounds like it is optional. The poor kids have gone back to school on what’s supposed to be an exciting day – expecting to get their stationery packs – and then they’re called out on this list of kids not getting a pack because their parents haven’t paid, in front of the whole class. (My kids) were quite stressed – our youngest is six and she was actually up multiple times throughout the night begging me, reminding me, to make the payment.”

Lack of clarity adds to cost-of-living pressures

Although Rachel said she was in a fortunate position of being able to quickly make the payment to ensure her child would receive the school equipment they needed, she expressed concern for other families who may struggle to meet the cost – and who believed that they did not have to.

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The use of the word ‘voluntary’ she said, is being “misused”.

“There needs to be little bit more transparency about what’s required and what the kids will or won’t get,” she said.

Multiple callers rang through with their own stories that supported Rachel’s claim of schools naming and shaming students in front of classmates – with one parent saying their child had been blatantly told “your parents didn’t pay”.

Government policy settings are to blame, says education expert

Former principal and education expert Adam Voigt is CEO of Real Schools, and takes critical messages about schools, learning, culture and leadership to elevate action in the education system.

“There’s no winners in this,” he said. “We’ve got kids who are missing out – both in terms of the equipment they need to engage in a decent education, and we’ve got them experiencing shame, embarrassment humiliation and teasing, at school as a result of it.”

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“It’s something we definitely shouldn’t tolerate,” he said. “It shows up differently in different ways and it’s because of the policy settings put in place by our governments – they’re the ones we should be directing our fury towards.”

“They’ve always been voluntary to some extent,” Mr Voigt said. “While we’ve called them school fees in the past and most people have paid them, what schools found over an extensive period of time is that some do, and some don’t – and there’s no real course of action for schools to take when they don’t.”

Schools struggle to meet costs when parents can’t

What you get then, Mr Voigt said, is that schools in a high socio-economic area may experience around 80 per cent of parents paying the ‘voluntary’ school fees the government schools outline at the beginning of each new school year. Of the remaining 20 per cent who don’t pay the contribution, Mr Voigt said some may choose not to because they are sourcing stationery supplies themselves at a preferred store, such as Smiggle or Officeworks, while the remaining small percentage who simply don’t pay can be covered by the school.

“But if you live in a low-socioeconomic area, the school might only have 20 per cent of the parents pay their fees – then they’re left with the situation of ‘now what do we do?’,” he said.

To help make up the shortfall of these non-payers, Mr Voigt said schools have to work out how the money is being covered – often by taking money from other areas of the school’s budget or initiating fundraising drives.

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He said he’s seen schools run raffles to try to entice more parents to make these contribution payments.

“If you pay your school fees, we’ll put you in a raffle so that your kid could win a bike. That’s how desperate they are to try and make sure that this is something that they can try and help et parents to do – because otherwise they’ve got to rob the kids educationally in some other way,” he said. “The fact that we’ve got policy settings in place that put schools and parents having to make those kinds of decisions – we should all be pretty dirty on that.”

While Mr Voigt said he presumed there wasn’t any policy written about the potential rights or wrongs of naming and shaming children by putting their name on display in front of other classmates to identify them as ‘non-payers’, “it’s certainly against common sense”.

“What we shouldn’t have is schools looking to overlay shame onto kids or onto families to try and get them to do the ‘right’ thing,” Mr Voigt said. “Where schools are left in a position where they have to make their own decision about how to handle this situation, we do find some schools – there’s a lot of them out there – who don’t make the right call on that, and as a result they’re left to deal with the fall-out of that.”

Public education should be accessible to everyone

When asked if a public education should be free, Mr Voigt said: “absolutely, it should”.

“It’s not something that we, as a society, should be in any kind of argument about,” he said.

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“Our education system is not a service – it’s the underpinning of our whole kind of social and economic prosperity. And the fact that we’ve got schools doing this – and the fact that we’ve got less than two per cent of these (Victorian) government schools funded to our Federal Government’s School Resource Standard – the minimum standard for what it costs to run a decent school – we shouldn’t be happy with that.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live