With a below average crop in much of the wheatbelt and a growing drought in the pastoral region those families facing steep boarding school fees next year will be wondering where the money will be coming from.
We know that the cost of education has soared 61 per cent in the past decade, dwarfing the 34 per cent rise in wage growth for the same period. With school fees tracking along at double the rate of inflation it is becoming increasingly difficult for all but the wealthiest or those with an appetite for a growing overdraft to send their kids away.
And it is only going to get worse. For a child born in 2018, the estimated cost of a six year private high school education and boarding at one of the big private school in 2030 will be around $80,000 pa up from $55,000 today. That’s half a million dollars that is not going back into the farm or rural economy. For two kids that equates to a nice million dollar housing unit in Subiaco next to the soon to be completed world class Bob Hawke College at Kitchener Park, across the road from Perth Modern School. This is a school that when it opens with its first intake of students next year will have all the bells and whistles of the big private schools down the road except maybe the rowing shed and definitely without the $30,000 in school fees.
The one thing we do know is the price of wheat with the black sea competition that is coming is not going to track along at 4% pa in real terms to offset these education cost increases, meaning that these expenses will be demanding a far greater share of the family farm budget than in the past.
If the government does not do something about the increasing cost of boarding fees then they are going to see an escalation in the drift of farm and farm service families out of the wheatbelt, further driving the corporatisation of WA agriculture and its move to a drive-in drive-out culture which will decimate country towns.
We all know the disadvantages of living in a remote and regional location – whether on a station, farm or small country town, they all suffer from limited educational opportunities. This is particularly bad today for students entering a highly competitive global world where education is everything. Unfortunately, providing a quality education is expensive for both governments and parents, but it has become really expensive for country people.
The state government currently spends around $5 billion a year on the education budget plus another half a billion dollars on building and maintaining school buildings. Within the budget it runs eight regional residential hostels across the state linked to country high schools. While many of these schools are very good, they do not all offer rural students the level of interaction and educational, opportunities that is on offer in the state-based city schools. Hence there is a case for another world class hostel to be built in Perth.
One would have thought that a Labor government with its egalitarian ethos would be seeking ways to break down barriers and offer as many opportunities to country kids as possible. Maybe the new Hawke College will be the trigger to expand the City Beach College to be available to all country high school students, which would work will for regional families that hub in and out of Perth.
Currently government assistance to all private schools is limited to a direct payment to the schools which equates to on average $10,000 per student, (falling to $3000 to the more expensive PSA schools) while the public system costs the state $13,764 per student. Direct assistance for Isolated Children Scheme payments is dependent on parental income and relevant to the boarding fees paid. In 2019 the boarding allowance is set at $10,838 per year. If a parent selects let’s say Northam residential college, they charge $14,143, leaving an out of pocket expense of around $3000. If they elect to send their child to one of the big private schools the boarding cost is around $25,000, which after the rebate from the commonwealth government leaves out of pocket expenses of around $14,000. Interesting to note that the full cost to the WA Dept of Education of running a residential college is $22,835 which is in line with the $25,000 that private schools are charging.
For the state government, their underlying goal should be to encourage as many rural families as possible to reach for their cheque book and select a private school, as it saves the state government money. Every student that goes into the state residential system costs the government $15,857 plus the additional $13,764 for tuition in a state school resulting in a total cost of close to $30,000. Hence the state government has every incentive to keep as many kids in the private boarding system as possible.
As a result of this logic country people should lobby the federal government to double the funding support for boarding families to $20,000. This would be a much fairer policy and a more politically saleable proposal than asking for tax deductions. It would reduce the boarding fee gap faced by private school parents to match the gap faced by families of state government hostel boarders which is around $3000.
If the state and commonwealth governments split the bill it would effectively reduce the boarding fee to be in line with the state system with a gap of around $3000. Then parents who elect to go to the big expensive PSA private schools still get the pain of picking up the $30,000 or so for tuition and those who choose to go public have an almost free education. The important thing is to level the playing field for the boarding part of the equation and literally make it fairer across the board. The total cost to the taxpayer of such a policy would equate to 2000 students x $10,000 or $20m a year every year. For the Western Australia Education Department budget this is a drop in the ocean compared to what the state currently spends on education, but it would make the world of difference to rural families.
The whole model of rebates and costs needs to be reviewed along with the model of state residential colleges being solely based in regional towns. There must be a big demand for a new state of the art residential college in Subiaco linked to the new Hawke College that gives country students access to all the sporting, educational, arts and specialist support options that come with living in a big city. The state government should commission a comprehensive economic and social review of our boarding school system from the perspectives of both the private and public school sectors. And the federal government needs to lift the boarding school rebate to $20,000 as its tough out there and getting tougher to afford the cost of sending kids away.