19 Feb 2024

School donations continue to yield millions of dollars for wealthier schools

7:14 am on 19 February 2024
Pen sketch of father and son holding hands and walking to school

Photo: RNZ

- This story has been corrected to clarify De La Salle College is in Māngere East not Ōtara as originally stated.

Government funding replaced parent donations for almost all but the wealthiest schools three years ago. It seems to have made little difference to a vast gap in resources between schools.

"Unfairness" was the watchword Chris Hipkins used when he outlined a proposed change to the school donation scheme in 2017.

The incoming Education Minister said schools where parents were less able to pay were at a disadvantage against those with wealthier parents.

"That's creating real unfairness," Hipkins said.

"It means that kids whose parents can afford to pay are getting a better deal than those parents that can't."

The solution was a scheme designed to abolish donation requests from all but the wealthiest schools. Since 2020, the government has paid $150 per student to eligible schools that agreed not to ask for donations on anything other than school camps.

Schools where students face fewer barriers to education (decile eight to 10, or an equity index number below 431), were ineligible for the funding and free to continue to ask parents for annual donations.

An RNZ survey of schools reveals what has happened as a result of the scheme.

Donations vs grants - the big gap

Hundreds of better off schools continue to collect millions of dollars from parents - amounts typically far in excess of what the government scheme offers to similar schools that are on the programme.

RNZ surveyed just over 600 schools which were ineligible or have chosen not to be part of the scheme. From the 200 schools which responded, results showed parents gave $26 million in 2023, working out to $280 per student when spread evenly across those schools - almost double what the government scheme provides.

Requested amounts varied widely between schools. The survey showed donation requests for 2023 ranged between $4320 to $15 per student depending on the school. The average requested amount was $358.

Hutt International Boys' School requested the most at $4320 per student, this included $380 for the school camp. Figures supplied by the school suggest it raised almost $2.6 million by November 1 2023, roughly 95 percent of what was requested. It's ineligible for the government donations scheme. If it was, it would have received $98,334.91.

Four other schools which responded to RNZ's survey also raised more than $1m from parent donations: Auckland Grammar School, Sacred Heart College (Auckland), Baradene College and Waikato Diocesan School for Girls. These schools raised between $1.5m to $2.3m more from parent donations than they would have if they were eligible for the government scheme.

Post Primary Teachers' Association president Chris Abercrombie is in favour of the government donation scheme which he says relieves stress on parents at a tough time of year. But he says it's not enough.

"We believe it's the government's responsibility to fully fund education and not have to rely on basically the generosity of communities. Every parent wants the absolute best for the child, so if they have the ability to do it, they will absolutely give money to their school or time to their school."

The government scheme is an attempt to make schools more equitable, but it hasn't solved the problem, he says.

"We know schools in wealthier communities can generate a lot more local funding. This really exacerbates the inequality that we see in the education system."

The ineligible schools without big donation money

Balmoral School in Auckland has an equity index number of 371, making it ineligible for the government's scheme. Principal Malcolm Milner says the school asked for $440 per student in 2023. Milner has been at the school since 2007 and says the donation request is increased in line with inflation annually. This year it will be $470.

Around 60 to 70 percent of parents pay the donation and a large portion of the money raised goes toward funding a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator (SENCO) and teacher aides. Accessing government funding for special needs students can be incredibly difficult due to tight criteria, says Milner. "These children are without support unless schools raise money to fund teacher aides to work with them."

The school raised $240,000 by November 2023 - if it had been eligible for the government scheme the funding would have been around $117,000.

Other ineligible schools appear to be losing out on funding.

"We are not eligible for the scheme but miss out on a significant amount of funding due to being a couple of equity points off the cut-off," Golden Sands School principal Melanie Taylor wrote in response to RNZ's survey. The school asked parents for a $100 donation and had received $25,000 by November 2023. If it was eligible for the government scheme it would have received closer to $84,000.

Cambridge East School is just 10 points under the equity index cut off for the scheme. Principal Hamish Fenemor said before Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis hit, about 80 percent of parents would pay the requested donation. This has dropped to 60 percent. In 2023, the school asked parents to contribute $120 per student, by November it had received $36,647. Had it been eligible for the government scheme it would have more than $60,000.

The school is expected to meet the needs of every learner but costs impact on the school's ability to deliver on this, Fenemor says.

"A lot of the time it comes down to having support staff, learning assistance - that's a big area - or programs that we subsidise, be it around literacy or mathematics, or any of that extra support that we put in place for learners that don't fit your normal mould, or are neurodiverse … so those are the sorts of programs that we have to cut as a result of a lack of funding."

While targeted funding, like $150 per student, would be helpful, he says his preference would be for an increase in operational funding, to allow for inflation.

"Schools that haven't received that extra $150, in recent years, they're just on a hiding to nothing. I've got nothing against targeted funding in regards to the lower socio economic areas. I've got no issue with it but it's just become too difficult for schools that are perceived to be an affluent area, because we've still got learners that have all those needs as well."

A 'hand-out mentality'

De La Salle College, in Auckland's Māngere East, is eligible for the scheme but has opted out, instead also asking parents to pay $120 per student. Principal Myles Hogarty said in response to RNZ's survey this was for philosophical reasons.

"Parents are asked to contribute and have ownership in their son's education through a minor financial contribution. We did not join the Government donation scheme as we are opposed to the creation of a hand-out mentality. Removing a parent's obligation to fund their son's education builds a culture of dependency on the state to provide more and more." Based on figures provided by the school, this philosophical stance meant the school missed out on almost $90,000 in 2023.

Other schools opt out because they get more from parents than they would from the government scheme.

"We do not feel that we could offer the additional opportunities, and excellent facilities and equipment that we currently do, if we were in the donation scheme," was the reason given by Tauranga Boys' College for choosing not to opt into the scheme. The school asks for a $120 donation, and asks for varying amounts of subject donations. In total, these add up to more than $150 per student.

Tahakopa School in Southland has chosen not to be part of the government scheme and doesn't ask parents for donations. "We are an extremely well resourced school, fundraising efforts which have occurred through our farming community have placed the school in a financially sound position," principal Cherie Zoutenbier-Bisset submitted to RNZ's survey. The school had two students in 2023.

A 'no brainer' to join

St Peter Chanel School is eligible for the government scheme and opted in straight away. Principal Marg Campbell-McCauley says joining was a "no brainer" for the then decile 4 school. It used to ask parents for a $50 donation for one child and $70 in total if a family had two children in the school.

She says the scheme eased the burden on the school community at a tough time of year.

"There's less pressure on our parents, because they've got stationery fees at the start of the year and often new uniform - we're a uniform school - so new uniform costs as well."

The guaranteed government funds help with budgeting. With donation requests, it's never known what portion of the requested total will be raised. "We would never get 100 percent of people paying it," Campbell-McCauley says.

How government grants or donations top up school funding

Schools receive a variety of funding from the government. These pots of money include funds for teachers' salaries, money for property, and operational funding, which is used for funding the day-to-day running of schools.

Labour Party education spokesperson Jan Tinetti says the donation scheme as well as the recently introduced equity index was the start of a plan to increase operational funding for schools.

"We wanted to make some move towards the fact that we need to be working towards a truly free education system and not having to rely on top ups and fundraising."

The donation scheme and the equity index system are interwoven, she says. The equity index, which has replaced the decile system, looks at 37 factors students are facing in each school. These include parents' income, qualifications, criminal history, student interactions with youth justice, the number of times they have shifted house or school, and ethnicity and migration status. A higher equity index score reflect greater challenges, based on the 37 factors.

Schools receive more equity funding per student the higher their index score is. The government donations scheme is in addition to equity funding and falls into the operational funding pot.

This means schools with a higher equity index score - and a student population facing more barriers to education - will receive more in government funding than schools with lower scores. The Ministry of Education says this reflects the additional costs of educating a higher proportion of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Higher decile schools are not funded for these costs they do not face," a ministry report states.

But is the funding model providing enough money to the schools which need it?

"The answer is no," Tinetti says. "If you look at us compared to the rest of the OECD, our funding doesn't seem to stack up as much."

Funding for primary and secondary students in New Zealand is between $3660 and $4150 below the OECD average.

Tinetti says after the equity index system is well-established, the government should be examining how operational funding is spent.

Things like learning support shouldn't have to come out of that, she says.

Tinetti says the school donations system could be revisited too. "But even if you went to ban them, there would be those parents who had the wherewithal to be involved in their kids' education financially and have a way to do that."

Massey University educational studies senior lecturer Tony Carusi says the idea of extending the government donation scheme to cover all schools and take parental funding out of the picture may seem appealing but wouldn't be a sure-fire way to ensure equitable funding.

"I would never doubt the human capacity to game a system once it's in place."

Carusi cites camps - which eligible schools can still charge for - as an example of a potential donations loophole.

"We have a lovely notion of what camp is; the kids go away and they're all together and doing these lovely overnights," he says, but this could be gamed. "Tutor camp, math camp, literacy camp. We can begin to camp-ify the donations process to make it seem as though schools aren't asking for donations, they're asking for camp money."

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of policy Andy Jackson says the higher decile schools were omitted from the plan because the scheme aimed to relieve pressure on households. The ministry will work with the new government to identify its priorities with the donation scheme.

Education Minister Erica Stanford says there are no plans to change the government donation scheme.