Education pain for isolated families

Jo FulwoodCountryman

A recent national survey has found rural and isolated families are paying up to $25,000 a child a year for boarding school, despite receiving government assistance.

And in some cases, the cost is much higher, with the Assistance for Isolated Children (AIC) scheme only funding the boarding component of an education.

To make the financial impact even worse, the Boarding School Access Research Report has also found 47 per cent of families have two or more children away at boarding school at the same time.

Some families are also financially supporting children at university.

After the release of the survey results on the impact of boarding school costs on families, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association has called on the Federal Government to increase the AIC by 50 per cent, or up to $4000 a year, to assist isolated families with education costs.

Currently, if all the eligibility criteria is met, families can access $8015 a year from the Federal Government and just over $2000 from the State Government through the Boarding Away from Home Allowance scheme.

But the ICPA believes this assistance does not go far enough to reduce the financial burden on isolated families.

According to ICPA president Wendy Hick, even after taking out current government financial assistance, families in rural communities are still confronted with annual average out of pocket costs of between $17,500 and $25,000 for each child.

“This significant cost burden poses a genuine strain on the family unit,” she said.

“It is forcing families to borrow to pay for school fees, relocate one of the parents to enable the children to access more affordable schooling and even postpone the final high school years of older students.

“It is clear this inequitable situation cannot continue and the Federal Government must take action.”

ICPA WA president Liz Sudlow has joined the call for an increase in both the AIC and the BAHA schemes, saying boarding fees in WA had been rising between 4 and 8 per cent each year, while the government assistance schemes had not.

“When the AIC was introduced in 1973, it was initially determined by the average cost of boarding less the cost of caring for children at home. Over time the cost of boarding has increased significantly more than the rate paid under the scheme,” she said.

“Most rural and remote families across WA are currently significantly out of pocket when they access a boarding school for their child. Businesses in rural and remote areas, particularly farming ones, operate in an asset-rich but income poor environment.”

She said many families were forced to draw down on savings, accept assistance from others — usually grandparents or employers — or borrow significantly against their asset, which in many cases was already stretched to the limit with the core business of agriculture.

“Employees in remote areas also find it difficult, if not impossible, to provide an education for their children and this is the reason why many are forced to leave remote and rural areas when their eldest child gets to high-school age.”

Ms Sudlow said the ICPA WA was also calling for families to be able to access both the AIC and the BAHA if their local school was not suitable for their child’s school needs.

“ICPA WA would like to see the State Government address the issue of appropriateness,” she said.

“While some district high schools in some areas do an amazing job for the cohort of students who attend, with specialised programs designed to improve literacy, numeracy and teach life skills, they are not always able to offer an appropriate education for other students who may aspire to a higher academic pathway.

“If a small school is not able to offer suitable educational opportunities for a student, for instance due to them being talented and gifted, or having a disability, they should be eligible to bypass the school and receive the boarding allowances.”

She said in Queensland, bypassing was permitted and it had proven to improve the health and viability of rural and remote towns because families did not leave when their eldest child needed to go to high school.

“These towns are able to retain professional workers, such as health professionals in their communities,” she said.

Ms Sudlow said it was important for families to understand that the AIC and the BAHA only contributed to boarding fees.

“These allowances are only designed to help contribute to boarding fees, but except for the government school — residential college option, you can’t have boarding without the expensive tuition fee,” she said.

“We are more fortunate than Queensland for example, in that we do have eight government residential colleges throughout WA which enable students to attend a government school where the tuition is considerably cheaper.”

However, Ms Sudlow said in 2016 across WA, most of the government residential colleges were at capacity.

She said for some families, government residential colleges were not logistically suitable.

“For instance for families from the Pilbara, or Gascoyne, the Geraldton Residential College may be the closest option, but it requires a flight to Perth and then back to Geraldton to travel to and from school. Often there are safety concerns with connecting flights/buses for children as young as 11 years of age.”

The survey report was presented to federal politicians in Canberra last week.

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