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State schools banned from pressing parents to fund learning essentials

Schools were briefed on the policy last week and told it will take effect from the start of 2022, irrespective of budgetary plans schools have made or communications they have sent out to families this year.

“The department will closely monitor the financial impact of the clarified and strengthened policy on all schools and will continue to examine funding arrangements,” principals were told on September 1.

Schools must not prevent any student from accessing curriculum essentials or joining essential excursions if their parents do not make a voluntary contribution; they must cover the shortfall out of their budgets.

Jason Walker, principal of Mont Albert Primary in Melbourne’s east, said if fewer parents paid, schools would face a choice between withdrawing some curricular programs and materials or raiding funding from elsewhere in the budget.

“We use voluntary payments on our instrumental music program, lunchtime clubs, excursions and camps,” Mr Walker said. “If you applied this parent payment policy, where we haven’t got the ability to charge on a user-pays basis, I don’t know how schools … are going to be able to provide these opportunities.”

Heath Matheson, a parent and member of the school council at Mount Beauty Primary School in the state’s north-east, said the rural school feared it might have to cancel its year 6 Canberra camp next year if the policy results in lost revenue.

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“We’re remote, so everything that is city-based involves a bus trip, so prices add up pretty quickly,” Mr Matheson said. “Something like the Canberra camp is $350 a head that I guess would need to be raised elsewhere because there is zero slack in the budget.”

Ms King said the policy risked driving more students into the private school system if state schools had to revert to a more “bare-bones” curriculum.

A 2015 Victorian Auditor-General’s report on school payments found they had evolved from supporting free instruction in government schools to being essential to its provision.

The report found the department’s checks and balances on school payments were inadequate. The department told schools this month this was a key reason for its review on voluntary payment policies.

A spokesman for the Education Department said the guidelines had been refreshed to give schools and families clarity and transparency about payments. Schools can continue to seek voluntary financial contributions towards classroom materials, educational programs and operating expenses, and invite parents to buy educational items on a user-pays basis, the spokesman said.

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