Free, or not so free ? The cost of education


State school education is widely considered to be free, but there are many extra costs parents are asked to pay. For families facing disadva ntage, these can be difficult to meet and community organisations are increasingly stepping in to help families to meet school costs. Monica Thielking,
Paul Flatau and Anne Hampshire tell the story.

The story of what ‘free education’ means in Victoria has many threads.

The first can be traced all the way back to the Education Act in 1872, providing for free state  education for Victorian children.

The second lies in how the modern version of that Act is interpreted by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) and Victorian public schools.

And finally we have the voice of disadvantaged students, families (and of those who support them), as they struggle to meet education costs. Today it is philanthropic and not-for-profit organisations, that are increasingly supplementing the cost of schooling when families cannot afford to pay.

The first thread of free state education, bound up in the current Education and Training Reform Act 2006, is a story of education equity and goodwill.

The Act is strong in its intention, asserting that instruction in the standard curriculum in Victorian government schools is provided for free. If a school chooses to request any fees from parents, this is via a voluntary financial contribution, and should not be in any way obligatory.

The Act describes the Education Minister as a leader mindful of the impact disadvantage has on educational outcomes, who “may provide or arrange special or additional assistance for students in Government schools with special needs, including the provision of meals to students who are disadvantaged by their socio-economic background” (Section 2.2.20).

This part of the story is about fairness and opportunity; about no child missing out. It has its  antecedents in a historic moment in 1872 when Victoria was the first ‘colony’ in Australia to pass an Education Act to establish a Department of Education whose chief mandate was to provide free, secular and compulsory primary education.

It was a bold decision, 142 years ago, by those in power, to ensure that education equity was provided to all Victorian children. At the time it received significant public praise, with The Argus newspaper noting that: “every child, no matter what its parents’ circumstances may be, will receive at the hands of the state that key which, rightly used, unlocks whole stores of knowledge” (18 December 1872).

It was a decision ahead of its time in building a strong and prosperous nation, ensuring all children, without discrimination, have full and free access to what is now universally regarded as a fundamental human right.

It was also a policy standpoint that is still mirrored by the social values of many Australians today, which is why there is a degree of unrest about the impact that ‘free’ state education ‘costs’ are having on children and families from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The second thread relates to how the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 is being administered  by the DEECD and public schools. This story is more complicated.

The DEECD describes a state education system that does not charge parents for the administration of the standard curriculum program, in line, they say, with their legislative requirement to provide free education.

However, the twist is that schools can, and do, charge and/or request parents pay for both ‘essential education items’ and ‘optional extras’.

And this is where the current confusion lies in regard to whether or not state education is in fact free education.

“Schools can, and do, charge and/or request parents pay for both
‘essential education items’ and ‘optional extras’”

Such costs can come as a surprise to families who have enrolled their children in primary or secondary state schools for the first time. Weaving et al., (2004) termed this experience as free education ‘cost shock’.

One cost borne by students in public education is the school uniform. Families may need to purchase a number of school uniforms for summer, winter and sport. Schools may add ‘optional extras’.

If a school principal becomes aware of a family who cannot afford their child’s uniform, they can seek support from State Schools’ Relief (SSR), which is a program unique to Victoria, providing free or subsidised school clothing, footwear, school socks and underwear to families in need.

SSR statistics highlight the significant financial difficulties many families are facing. In 2013, more than 8,000 Victorian children attended state schools without basic clothing and footwear. One in 60 children receives support from SSR; and each year it helps more than 3000 students with shoes for school (see

Whilst DEECD assures us that schools have policies in place to ensure that students are not treated differently or denied access to the standard curriculum if they cannot afford to pay,1 there is no denying that Victoria’s state education system is very much following a user-pays, value-for-money formula.

This gives rise to the possibility of some children in state education experiencing a rich and broad education, while others, whose families cannot afford to pay, only experiencing a standard ‘no frills’ education.

It makes it possible for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to miss out on ‘essential education items’ that support instruction in the standard curriculum (such as not being able to afford the entry fees for a school-run performance, or art materials for a VCE assessment task), as well as ‘optional extras’ (such as not being able to participate in book club, or purchase the school diary to help with organisation and planning).

This leads us to the third story, about disadvantaged students, and mainly told by the agencies that support them and their families. This story shows we are far from the 1872 celebration of a system that ensures “every child, no matter what its parents’ circumstances” reap the benefits of free schooling. Instead agencies describe a state education system that is inequitable, does not provide its “stores of knowledge” to all, and contains a significant segment of children who cannot fully participate due to cost.

In 2004 a survey of 528 Victorians seeking emergency relief (with 787 children at school) found that 91 per cent believed their inability to meet school costs would impact negatively on their children’s education (Weaving et al., 2004).

In 2007 a survey of 58 low-income Victorian families (with 129 children at school) found that 39 per cent kept children home from school due to inability to pay costs associated with excursions, sport days, school camps, uniforms and equipment, lack of transport and food insecurity (Bond & Horn, 2008).

“In 2013 more than 8,000 Victorian children attended state schools without basic clothing and footwear. One in 60 children receives support from SSR and each year it supports more than 3000 students with shoes for school.”

The Salvation Army’s National Economic and Social Impact Survey (2014) found that of the 1,076 general emergency relief clients surveyed, 56 per cent could not afford out-of-school activities for their children, 42 per cent could not afford school books, equipment or new school clothes and 38 per cent could not afford school-based activities and outings.

Evidence is also emerging that increasingly, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are basing their schooling choices on cost rather than academic preference or talent, and choosing less expensive subjects to alleviate family hardship (Scattebol et al., 2012).

Definitive data on the cost of public education is largely undeveloped. It is difficult to determine just how much parents are paying for optional extras, as well as for items and services deemed compulsory to support the course of instruction in the standard curriculum.

Current large-scale data sources that seek to record school fees are somewhat unclear and further research is needed to determine cost and its impact on families and student outcomes.

The My Schools website includes broad financial information for each school, including “fees, charges and parent contributions”. The total income from parent fees and contributions it reports, which can be in the six-figure range for some state schools, leaves no doubt that parents are routinely paying for their child’s state education beyond the free standard curriculum.

The Smith Family has estimated the cost of attending state primary school – from uniforms, shoes and stationery, through to the charges that are part of daily attendance and study – as being upwards of $2000 for one child over a year (2014). The Brotherhood of St Laurence applied a ‘social inclusion lens’ to its School Education Expenses (SEE) survey, and its pilot study estimated that the average annual cost for families is $3624 for primary school and $3928 for secondary school-aged students (Bond & Horn, 2009).

“In 2007 a survey of 58 low-income Victorian families (with 129 children at school) found that 39 per cent kept children home from school due to inability to pay costs associated with excursions, sport days, school camps, uniforms and equipment, lack of transport and food insecurity.”

When families struggle, philanthropic and not-for-profit (NFP) agencies often provide the safety net they need. A recent Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) survey of 81 philanthropic foundations or trusts revealed that in 2013 they collectively contributed more than $23 million to education. In the survey category of material aid, funding was mostly provided for ‘basic’ education materials such as uniforms, shoes, books and IT equipment. Schools in lower socioeconomic areas had the greatest need for financial assistance (Anderson & Curton, 2014).

A study commissioned by the Equity in Education Alliance2 surveyed 49 Victorian community organisations providing emergency relief to disadvantaged families struggling to meet the costs of state education. It found that in 2008-09, more than $1 million was disbursed to families for this purpose. This was said to be only a fraction of the real cost, considering that there are up to 700 community organisations in Victoria providing similar services (Bond, 2009).

The Smith Family is Australia’s largest children’s education charity, and in Victoria supports more than 20,000 disadvantaged children each year in their schooling and tertiary study. It has 8,000 students on its Learning for Life scholarships, which assist with expenses such as uniforms, shoes, books, excursions, camps and sporting equipment, as well as access to a range of literacy programs, homework clubs and career mentoring.

Eligibility criteria for Learning for Life scholarships includes the student’s family being on a Health Care Card or pension. Over half of the secondary students who are supported by Learning for Life have been on the program for five or more years. This highlights that many families need this support over the longer term to meet the costs of education – not a once-off payment to cover short-term financial difficulties.

The number of young people currently supported by Learning for Life scholarships does not reflect demand, but rather the organisation’s capacity to raise funds for it. This would be the case for most not-for-profit organisations providing financial and other support to disadvantaged students and most likely there would be many more low-income Victorian families needing access to this and other programs.

Whether or not state education is in fact free is debatable. But the most important issue is how the cost of state education impacts disadvantaged students and their families. The consequences of inequity are real. The current achievement gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students is equivalent to almost three years of schooling (Australian Government, 2011). Low socioeconomic status students are also a significantly under-represented group in higher education
(Edwards & Radloff, 2013).

There is a gap between how the state education system was designed and how it is now delivered. If free education (with costs) is to remain, then greater effort is needed to ensure that those who are unable to pay are not excluded and/or receive a second-rate education.

We need to develop a sustainable education budget model that does not compromise the principles of equity and access, and ensures all students have the chance to participate in high quality education that prepares them for further training and entry into the workforce, and enables them to excel in their professions of choice, rather than necessity.

The education sector must also recognise and value the significant contribution that the community sector makes in supporting families who could otherwise not afford the costs of state education, and in supporting disadvantaged students’ educational outcomes.

 Dr Monica Thielking is Lecturer/Research Fellow at Swinburne University.
Winthrop Professor Paul Flatau is Director of the Centre for Social Impact at the University of Western Australia.
Anne Hampshire is Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family.

Anderson & Curtin, Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) 2013 survey report: Leading by evidence to maximise the impact of philanthropy in education, 13 February 2014.

The Argus, 18 December 1872

D Edwards & A Radloff, Higher education enrolment growth, change and the role of private HEPs: Background paper prepared for the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, Australian Council for Education Research, Melbourne, 2013.

Australian Government, Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report, Canberra, 2011.

S Bond, Cost shifting in education: Implications for government, the community sector and low-income families, Equity in Education Alliance, Melbourne, December 2009.

S Bond & M Horn, Counting the cost: parental experiences of education expenses: Results from the 2007 education costs survey, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne, May 2008.

S Bond & M Horn, The cost of a free education: Cost as a barrier to Australian public education, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne, August 2009.

The Salvation Army, No new start: National Economic & Social Impact Survey, The Salvation Army, 21 May, 2014.

J Skattebol, P Saunders, G Redmond, M Bedford & B Cass, Making a Difference: Building on Young People’s Experiences of Economic Adversity: Final Report, Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2012.

The Smith Family, The real cost of public school getting beyond most disadvantaged families, Media Release, 24 January, 2014.

M Weaving, G Lloyd, C Atkins & A Savage, The rising cost of ‘free’ education: A survey of emergency relief clients presenting at Victorian Community Information Centres January – February 2004, Emergency Relief Victoria Network, Melbourne, 2004.

1 See:
2 The Equity in Education Alliance is an informal alliance of community sector organisations concerned that the costs of education are an increasing burden on many Victorian families. See


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