The drought’s eroding impact on remote farming families’ ability to keep children at boarding school or university has stirred more calls for Canberra to establish a rural hardship education fund.
Southern Queensland parents have aired their “deep regret” about the lack of attention Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently paid to the consequences to rural education caused by drought while he visited parts of the drought-savaged state in June with Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud.
“We thank them for their visit, but note with deep regret the lack of announcements in the Federal Budget and since regarding rural education,” the Southern Darling Downs branch of the Isolated Children’s Parents Association (ICPA) noted in a special motion at the organisation’s federal conference.
The branch urged more ICPA pressure be put on the Prime Minister’s office to establish a special education fund.
The ICPA’s Mt Isa Branch of the Air made a similar call for a hardship fund to assist education costs in tough times such as extreme droughts, fires and floods, or out of proportion industry events such as the 2016 farmgate milk price collapse or the 2011 live cattle export ban.
A host of other ICPA branches highlighted how Assistance for Isolated Children boarding allowances had not kept pace with rising school fees and should more closely reflect the real costs of educating rural students.
“Geographically isolated students should not be disadvantaged or unable to attend studies at boarding school or tertiary institutions due to ongoing long term droughts or times of rural hardship,” Southern Downs delegates Carmel Elliott and Bernadette Walker told the conference.
Families have to decide who can go away and which child doesn’t receive further education.
“Education is an investment for the future prosperity of all our rural communities, but when families experience severe financial hardship the cost of education is often not their priority as they try to trade through exceptional circumstances.”
Access to a hardship fund would also ease some of the mental pressure on struggling families.
Winton delegate, Kate Bradshaw, whose home shire is in its sixth year of drought, said a load of cottonseed or hay for hungry sheep or cattle could cost the equivalent of a year’s fees at boarding school.
Central Queensland delegate, Kasie Scott, Clermont, noted while a child’s schooling was likely to be relatively unchanged if disasters hit metropolitan areas, disasters in the bush may mean years with little or no income for rural families.
EC funds dried up
“In the past exceptional circumstances (EC) funding could be applied for and a top up added to the isolated children’s assistance allowance, but at present no such scheme exists,” she said.
“Families have to decide whether or not their children remain at school, or who can go away and which child doesn’t receive further education.
“At small rural schools families face the difficulty of not being able to raise funds for excursions or other student activities.”
However, NSW ICPA president, Bruce Paynter, acknowledged some boarding schools were particularly flexible about working with parents to accept delayed payments, especially if the school understood the family’s long term farm planning and education funding strategy.
“Don’t be afraid to put the school on notice. Show them what you’re doing and make sure they’re prepared to support you,” he said.
“I know of parents who made their final payment eight years after their child left school – they had nothing more to give at the time, and the school acknowledged that.”
More equitable equity, please
Central West NSW’s Nyngan branch argued if the Prime Minister was serious about providing world best education opportunities to equip students with skills they needed, the federal government’s Assistance to Isolated Children (AIC) boarding equity allowance “needs to equitable” to help geographically isolated children get an education equivalent to city their counterparts.
Boarding was the only option for many regional families to access an education on par with their urban cousins, said Christie Goddard, Bollan, Queensland, but with typical Brisbane schools charging $35,000 to $40,000 a student, the average cost was beyond the reach of many families.
“Ordinary families can’t afford to live in rural areas,” she said, noting Australia’s median household income was about $75,000 a year.
She called for the government to address the shortfall in the AIC boarding allowance by aligning it with rises in the education category of the Consumer Price Index.
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