14/02/2019 - 14:49

Rising fees a fact of school life

14/02/2019 - 14:49

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Fees at most of WA’s private schools are on the way up, with the BNiQ database showing the state’s most expensive schools are costing parents around $5,000 more per year than in 2013.

Rising fees a fact of school life
Marie Perry says fee increases are in line with expectations for the school’s wages growth. Photo: MLC

Fees at many of Western Australia’s private schools are increasing steadily at nearly per cent each year, a rate above inflation and wages growth.

This means education is absorbing an ever-larger portion of the household budgets of those with children at private schools.

The disconnect between wages and education fees has meant enrolments at some top schools fell after the GFC and mining downturn in WA, and are struggling to recover.

According to the BNiQ database, which contains over 300 schools, year 12 fees at the 20 most expensive private schools have risen by around 20 per cent since 2013 (see table).

In contrast, overall wages growth in WA has remained mainly static, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting average weekly earnings of $1,298 in May 2013 had risen minimally to $1,320 in May 2018.

The increase in school fees means that parents with a child in year 12 are paying about $5,000 more per year than six years ago.

Topping the list for fees is independent Anglican boys school Christ Church Grammar School.

Christ Church fees for year 12 are now set at $28,320, up 24 per cent from $22,820 in 2013.

While schools such as Christ Church, Presbyterian Ladies College, Scotch College and Hale School are, as expected, in the top echelon, WA’s highest fees don’t originate exclusively from Perth’s acknowledged elite schools.

The top 20 on the BNiQ list includes two Montessori schools, Perth Montessori and Treetops Montessori, as well two regional schools, Bunbury Cathedral Grammar and Albany’s Great Southern Grammar.

The top 10 consists entirely of single-gender schools, including Wesley College, which is co-educational in junior years, but boys only from year seven.

With her school charging the second highest fees in the state, Methodist Ladies College principal Marie Perry told Business News that fee growth was in line with wages expectations for staff.

“About 70 to 75 per cent of private schooling fees go towards employment costs,” she said.

“Each year people expect their pay to develop, so therefore you can’t keep fees at a restrictive level.”

Dr Perry moved to MLC a year ago from Queensland, and said the national sector was particularly volatile to wider economic changes.

“With the economic downturn that happened across the country, there was a downturn in private school enrolments,” she said.

“On the east coast it was very much GFC driven, and on the west coast it was the GFC combined with the mining downturn, which had a big impact on schools.

“Many of the private schools that had massive waiting lists don’t have that at the moment, particularly in the junior years of schooling, simply because a lot of parents can’t afford the fees the same way they could in the boom period.

“Affordability of private schooling is always an issue.”

Dr Perry said she had pushed for stronger partnerships between MLC and related organisations in order to cut costs without sacrificing education quality.

“The role of a principal has changed over the years, and you have to have that business head as well as the education head,” she said.

“As an educator, my first thought is always what’s best for my students, but you also need that economic reality sitting alongside it.

“You’re always looking to make sure you can keep costs down for families, while still providing the best opportunities for students that you can.”

One of these recent partnerships is with neighbouring Christ Church.

As MLC’s swimming pool approached the end of its useable life, the board made the decision to create a joint aquatic precinct with the boys’ school, adding a new multi-purpose pool rather than replicating the existing facility.

Dr Perry said that around 30 per cent of families at her school also had children attending Christ Church, meaning that community goodwill regarding a partnership was high and fundraising could be undertaken for one facility rather than two.

Among the biggest challenges to the private school sector, Dr Perry said, were instability in government funding and lack of a national approach to education.

“Putting your child in a private school actually saves the taxpayer money … the amount of money the government pays towards supporting an independent school student is way less than they would have to pay if that child was in one of the public schools,” she said.

“We seem to have prime ministers who change regularly, a minister for education who changes regularly, but I think that longer-term view of governance is important.

“I think everyone is so concerned about retaining their position for the short term, there’s not enough long-term planning.”

Fee freeze

Bucking the trend of fee hikes is WA’s largest private school, St Stephen’s School, which has campuses at Caarramar and Duncraig, as well as an outdoor education facility at Dwellingup.

The co-educational Uniting Church school has had the highest enrolments in the state since 2013, despite the fact that its total student numbers have diminished in this period.

St Stephen’s reported 2,229 students enrolled this year.

Principal Donella Beare told Business News the mining sector downturn had majorly affected enrolments.

“We were not immune to the mining boom at all,” Ms Beare said.

“We certainly have seen a drop in enrolments over the past five years, like all our independent colleagues.

“But in the past two years we’ve seen a stabilisation of numbers.

“We also cut our fees in 2017, and we’ve maintained them for the past two years.

“All independent schools have had to face the boom and bust culture in WA.”

Fees for year 12 at St Stephen’s hit a high of $12,660 in 2016, before being cut to $9,790 in 2017.

Since then, the school has frozen fees at this level.

Private schools such as Trinity College and Tranby College have also recently frozen fees or retained an increase below 1 per cent.

Ms Beare said parents were increasingly looking for value for money, and were willing to shop around to find the best school for their needs and wallets.

She said a significant issue in the sector was negative public discourse pitting the public system against private.

“I would like to see a stop to the debate that puts private against public,” Ms Beare said.

“That’s sets up educators against each other, and we don’t actually work in that way, we’re very collegial.

“We just offer different things.”

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