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Back-to-school budget demands send parents into crisis

Families still reeling from the expense of Christmas now face the high costs of the new school year along with rent increases and other rising costs of living.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says family incomes must be high enough to cover all essential living and schooling costs for children, while ensuring that schools minimise fees and other charges to families.

With digital technology now part of the official curriculum, many schools have encouraged families to purchase computers for their children to use at school through a ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) policy. Recently it has become normal for schools to include a device as part of the required ‘stationery pack’. But schools cannot by law charge for delivering the official curriculum, and already overstretched families face the dilemma of taking on significantly more debt to purchase such equipment, or seeing their children further disadvantaged compared with their peers.

A very basic device may cost several hundred dollars and over a thousand dollars for a higher quality one, plus any insurances that may be required. Time payments for such purchases may end up costing more in the long run through high interest rates. Many families turn to short-term loan providers to ensure their children are as adequately equipped as their peers, resulting in ongoing, increased weekly costs.

School uniforms and shoes are expenses that may become even less affordable as families living in private rentals suffer new year market-driven rent increases. Charities face growing demand as they become relied upon to meet the shortfall of ensuring that children living in poverty have the minimum equipment, clothing and nutrition they need to be ready to learn and enjoy school. Work and Income is paying out far more supplementary or hardship
grants showing the deficiency of benefit levels.

Meanwhile budgeting services are being squeezed as providers have experienced their own funding cuts over the past year. But they are needed more than ever, as family incomes are spread more thinly.‚Äč

CPAG says Working for Families urgently needs reform to help solve this problem.

"There is a range of things that must be done, but paying the full package of tax credits to all low-income families irrespective of the number of hours of paid work they have each week is the first step." says Associate Professor Susan St John, CPAG’s economics spokesperson.

“The Ministry of Education (MoE) and Education Review Office (ERO) also have a role to play,” says Professor John O’Neill, CPAG’s education spokesperson.

“MoE needs to advise Government on the funding levels that schools require to meet all the costs of curriculum delivery, including digital technology. ERO needs to ensure schools follow the law in terms of charging fees and requesting donations, and in being reasonable in their expectations of how much overstretched families will contribute to meeting the cost of a 21st century learning experience for children.

“Introducing digital technology into the curriculum is a good thing. Expecting schools to include these in a stationery pack and pushing families further into a spiral of debt is not.”