Visit www.education.govt.nz. The website proudly states that between the ages of 5 and 19, your child’s education is free. But is it really?
On the face of it New Zealand has never spent more on education. In last year’s Budget the Government touted its record $10.8 billion annual investment in education. It is likely this year’s spend will be greater still.Despite this, the cost of sending your child to school has never been greater.
These costs come in the form of the add-ons – contributions the school asks for because it cannot cover the costs itself. Donations and stationery packs may be voluntary for parents, but societal pressure often ensures that voluntary quickly feels compulsory.
Consider also new teaching and learning methods. Much has been made of the need for increased levels of digital literacy and self-directed learning. The Government’s considerable (and laudable) investment in the Network for Learning has ensured that most schools now access fast, secure fibre connections that take learning off the blackboard and into the cloud. All this, however, requires a digital device.
Few schools can afford to equip their students with the full suite of tools necessary for this style of learning. So parents must wear the cost through bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies. It falls to them to carry these costs, at a time when the nation is focused on the increasing inequality gap.
Such policies may make sense at a secondary school level – most secondary students will already have some kind of device, and they use them extensively. But are BYOD policies necessary at primary school? And how onerous should such policies be permitted to be? A $500 Chromebook may be reasonable for a middle income family with one child, but what if all three of your children need one?
The question facing the Government, therefore, is what are schools and parents actually getting for their money in this year’s Budget? Should attempts be made to limit the cost of add-ons, or make them claimable as part of the rebate on their school donations; or are they simply a part of the cost of raising a child in our society?
To eliminate school donations and additional costs entirely would likely send Treasury over the edge. And the Government is unapologetic in its desire to use public money intelligently and not carte blanche. This is the right mentality, but it presents challenges.
Budget 2016 needs to ensure the Government’s considerable investment in Vote Education is being intelligently targeted. Ministers English and Parata should seek to ensure money is going where it is needed, and will do the most good. No expenditure of this size can be individually tailored. But neither should it be one size fits all.