Increase in school boarding allowance overdue
Increase in school boarding allowance for rural pupils overdue, says Federated Farmers
Source: Federated Farmers
A review of the school boarding allowance can’t come soon enough for farming families who live many kilometres from their nearest school.
Federated Farmers spokesperson for education and skills Rick Powdrell says an increase before the start of term 1 next year is urgent so that rural families and communities are no longer disadvantaged.
As it stands, some parents have to make an agonising choice between hours of their children’s week being swallowed by travel, or forking out for boarding fees that exceed the government allowance by many thousands of dollars.
The issue makes it more difficult to attract staff to work in remote areas, and is a stumbling block for the Government’s regional growth programme.
The Ministry of Education budget for boarding allowances was underspent by more than $3 million last year.
The ‘Access Barrier’ boarding allowance for pupils from remote areas is $3,200, set in 2013 to replace boarding bursaries of $2725p.a. However, boarding school fees have out-paced that increase. It’s not uncommon for boarding costs for state and state- integrated high schools to be $11,000-$15,000 a year, and private school fees often well exceed $20,000.
Pupils can qualify for the access allowance when the closest school bus route to where they live is an "unreasonable" distance away (around 20km), or the child has to travel longer than 60 minutes or 60km one way to their nearest school.
It comes from the same Ministry of Education budget as a ‘Multiple Barriers’ boarding allowance ($7,500 + $500 for pastoral care), available for pupils anywhere in New Zealand who have one or more difficulties such as behavioural issues, low educational achievement, poor participation at school.
Federated Farmers is not questioning the multiple barriers allowance but asks why the access barrier allowance is less than half that amount.
And it’s not as if the Ministry’s budget can’t stretch to a higher access allowance, Rick Powdrell says.
Figures obtained by Federated Farmers after a request under the Official Information Act show that in 2015, 813 pupils qualified for a multiple barriers allowance (total $6.08m) and 638 for an access barrier allowance ($2.01m). That’s a total of just over $8m but the amount budgeted by the Ministry for boarding allowances for 2015 was $11.31m.
The budget was also underspent in previous years.
"It’s a key issue for remote, rural people," says Rick Powdrell. Farming families want a good education for their children, and with the increasing complexity and technology of the primary export/agri-business sector, that’s important for New Zealand too.
The option of distance schooling via computer isn’t always realistic because remote rural internet services are patchy.
"With study via computer, they’re not able to get that life learning that happens when you’re at a boarding school with hundreds of other kids, and the range of extras that schools offer."
Federated Farmers Ruapehu provincial president Lyn Neeson said in a letter to Education Minister Hekia Parata earlier this year: "Our hill country and remote farmers and their staff deserve opportunities for education equitable with their urban counterparts."
One dairy farm couple on the West Coast told Federated Farmers they believe in supporting their nearest state school (the mother is on the board of the primary school 30km away that their two younger children attend), but their nearest high school is 70km away.
The high school’s nearest bus route is a 15-minute drive from the farm, and the bus ride takes another 45 minutes. In total their eldest child would have been sitting on a car or bus seat for two hours a day; "that’s time he could be using taking up other opportunities," the mother said.
The couple made the "difficult" decision to send their eldest to a state-integrated school in Christchurch, where the boarding and other fees total $15,500 a year.
The government’s $3,200 allowance doesn’t go far, "but I don’t scoff at it at all. We’re very glad to have it," the mother said.
A review of the access barrier allowance is being considered and there may be an announcement before the end of the year, a Ministry spokesperson said.
Rick Powdrell says the growing number of rural families who contact Federated Farmers to express frustration over the issue are looking forward to a positive result.