The rising costs of education are putting financial pressure on vulnerable families. The Society in Victoria is addressing these needs at a local level and advocating for the state and federal governments to recognise the true cost of education, writes Margaret Gearon.
Education is recognised as an important pathway for overcoming social and economic disadvantage, and for enabling young people to move out of the poverty cycle created or caused by lack of access to an adequate income.
Access to education and training is essential for entry into stable employment. It is the responsibility of the school system to ensure that all students are prepared and able to create a future of self-sufficiency and non-reliance on government benefits.
Anything that prevents a family from maintaining a child in school needs to be investigated and, where possible, addressed. Whether it is the inability to pay school fees, the provision of required uniforms or books, or the inability to afford excursion/camp costs, all these compound the underlying issues and can contribute to a family’s financial stress. Children are also affected through the lack of schooling essentials that can potentially lead to a child’s lack of willingness to attend school regularly.
Through the work of conference members and the central office call centre, the St Vincent de Paul Society in Victoria became acutely aware of the increasing costs (direct and indirect) associated with providing educational resources to the families they assist. As a result, Victoria’s Social Justice & Advocacy Committee has prioritised the research in this vital area and since August 2017, has presented six-monthly reports tracking the growing need of educational assistance being requested.
The data collected indicate that Victorian families often rely on the local conference or region’s help to pay for uniforms, books and technology requirements. Over the past three years, these costs have increased dramatically and families—especially those on Newstart or Disabiity Pension Allowance, as well as a new group of asylum-seeker and refugee families—are struggling to keep up with the demands of the costs of schooling. The Victorian Department of Education and Training’s website now provides information for school principals and parents about access to assistance from State School Relief for uniforms and shoes, how to apply for the Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund, and what to do if a family is struggling financially with school fees. Although this information addresses some of the issues which the Society raised with the Education Minister in 2018, it does not cover the full extent of costs that disadvantaged families are expected to deal with.
A couple of examples are provided here to illustrate where conferences and regions have responded to requests for education assistance.
In a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne with a very high percentage of refugee and migrant families, the local conference has been supporting the family of a refugee who is awaiting a liver transplant. After appealing to the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the wife and children were allowed to come to Australia on short-term visas. The children needed to attend school, so with the help of the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project, the eldest child was, enrolled in a local Catholic girls school. Her uniform and equipment needs were met by the Society. Her younger brothers were provided with a tutor for home schooling while negotiations were made to have them placed in a school without having to pay international student fees.
Similarly, in Gippsland, a Burmese family who had come to Australia and applied for a family reunion visa was provided with a tutor for the child of lower secondary school age and twins of primary school age. Recently, the Society paid $6000 for the twins to be enrolled in a local government primary school and the older child is being supported by the Smith Family to attend the local secondary school.
These exceptional results to enable asylum-seekers’ children to be educated come from the advocacy conducted by local conference members and the Social Justice & Advocacy Committee.
A final example from a conference demonstrates the power of the Society’s work at a local level. In seeking stories from conferences around assistance for education expenses, one conference in the South-Eastern Central Council provided this heart-warming story.
A high achieving secondary school student from a single-parent family had her heart set on attending an international space agency camp. Through her part-time job, the teenager was able to save enough to cover the return airfare and camp fees. Unfortunately, her mother’s car broke down and they both needed this to transport them to school and jobs. So, the young student took the money from her savings and gave this to her mum for the car repairs and rent arrears. When the mother called the local conference to ask for assistance with the daughter’s regular school expenses, the conference was able to provide $2500 for her schooling and found three anonymous donors who provided $6000 towards the daughter’s participation in the international space camp. This is a great story with a happy ending in this case, but it could have ended quite differently if the local conference had not been committed to the concept of education as a key to breaking the poverty cycle.
In essence, what we are asking is that state and federal government education ministers and opposition education spokespersons recognise the real costs of all aspects of education for parents, especially those who are struggling financially. Governments need to re-visit their education department’s policies on information technology access and the equipment required by students for this technology. They also need to monitor more carefully what schools ask of children and their parents regarding attendance at school camps and excursions, and how the costs of these are to be met.
In Victoria, Society members have a high awareness of the actual costs of education. This has resulted in greater assistance to families for education expenses, and in some instances, the introduction of scholarship schemes for those starting secondary school.
Margaret Gearon is chair of the Victorian Social Justice and Advocacy Committee for the St Vincent de Paul Society Victoria.