Can state schools charge fees?
No. Every New Zealand citizen or permanent resident is guaranteed free enrolment and free education from their fifth birthday until the end of the year in which they turn 19.
Note: Schools must clearly identify – in their prospectus, website information and notices to parents – that all charges for optional activities, including materials and services, are just that: optional. If a parent hasn’t agreed to their child doing the activity, they can’t be charged.
The school can only charge for activities or services that are optional, and for items that students make at school but get to take home and keep. Schools can ask for voluntary donations, and parents can’t be forced to pay these donations. This is explained in more detail below.
Do I have to pay the “school donation” / “school fee”?
Most schools ask parents to pay a specific sum of money towards running the school and providing additional services for students. This is normally called a “school donation”, and is a way of parents contributing to the school by topping up government funding. Schools should make it clear to parents that this is a voluntary donation and that parents don’t have to pay it. Unfortunately, some schools use the term “fee” or even “levy” to describe the voluntary donation, which implies that the parents have to pay it – this is wrong.
Schools can suggest an amount for the annual donation, but they can’t penalise parents (or the students) for choosing not to pay the suggested amount. In particular, schools can’t insist that the donation be paid before they’ll confirm the student’s enrolment at the school.
The receipt the school gives you for your donation should state that it’s a donation, and the donation will qualify for an income tax rebate. The school shouldn’t include GST in any amount that qualifies as a donation, as schools don’t have to pay GST on voluntary contributions from parents.
Can the school charge “activity fees” for course materials?
Parents shouldn’t be charged for the cost of teaching or materials used in delivering the school curriculum, unless there’s a very clear take-home component. In subjects with a practical component, such as clothing and workshop technology, schools can charge for materials if the end-product belongs to the student and can, if paid for, be taken home.
At the start of the year, parents should be made aware that charges for materials are a feature of courses in practical subjects.
If you’re uncertain or disagree about whether an activity is part of the school curriculum, you can contact the Ministry of Education about it.
Can the school charge “activity fees” for activities and events?
Schools often ask parents to pay specific activity fees for events or activities like field trips, school camps, and music concerts.
If the event or activity isn’t part of teaching the curriculum but rather is something that enhances it (for example, a trip to see a play), then it’s legitimate for the school to exclude students who haven’t paid the admission price or travel costs. However, the school can’t send the student home during the activity, and must provide them with activities and supervision. This could involve placing the student in a different class while their class is on the trip. The school should also try to provide the student with an alternative experience or insight into the curriculum – for example, a video.
If, however, a class field trip is an essential requirement for a subject (particularly at senior high school level), the school can’t charge an activity fee for this, as it’s part of the school curriculum and the school is funded by the government to deliver the curriculum.
It’s reasonable for the school to ask parents to voluntarily pay a donation towards the travel costs associated with activities that are part of delivering the curriculum, like fieldwork in biology. But the school can’t exclude any students whose parents can’t or won’t pay. The school should also make every effort to minimise the costs, by holding the activity as close to the school as possible.
It’s also reasonable for schools to ask parents to voluntarily contribute towards the cost of a school camp or a fun trip (for example, a trip to the botanical gardens), which is part of the broader school programme. But again, the school can’t require anyone to pay, and can’t exclude students who don’t pay.
Note: If you can’t afford an activity fee for take-home course materials or for optional activities, you should contact the school principal. In some cases, you may be able to negotiate an informal arrangement with the school, for example, a payment plan. You may also want to explore other avenues, such as an advance on your benefit from Work and Income.
The school must tell parents in advance of any activity fees, and parents must be given the opportunity to agree to pay the charges. Schools may also ask for advance payment for optional activities during the year, but can’t insist on this.
Can integrated schools charge fees?
Integrated schools can charge a compulsory fee – called an “attendance due” – but this can’t be more than the amount approved by the Minister of Education (which is published in the New Zealand Gazette – go to www.gazette.govt.nz). These dues should also be clearly set out in any prospectus or enrolment information. Attendance dues can be used only to improve school buildings and facilities or to pay for debts or mortgages that the school has on the school’s land or buildings. The school can’t charge parents interest on unpaid dues.
Can we be refused a copy of the school magazine because we didn’t pay the donation?
Some items, including school magazines, may be funded entirely through donations and not through the Ministry of Education. Schools may therefore have a right to withhold these items.
Can the school refuse to issue a student ID card if we don’t pay the donation?
This depends. Some schools fund their student ID cards entirely from school donations, in which case they could refuse to issue a card if the donation isn’t paid. However, the school should take into account that refusing to issue an ID card could have serious consequences for the student – for example, not being able to use the school library or get a student pass for public transport. This could amount to unfair and illegal discrimination against the student.
It may be possible to work out a compromise – for example, the parents might be able to pay for the cost of the ID card alone.
Can a school withhold a school report or leaving certificate because the family owes the school money?
Schools are legally required to report on a student’s progress and achievements to the student and to their parents. For students enrolled in years 1–8, schools must also provide a written report on the student’s progress and achievement in relation to the National Standards, at least twice a year. If a school tries to withhold school reports to “encourage” parents to pay the school donation or pay any money owed to the school, the school could be breaching its legal obligations.
However, school leaving certificates are different from school reports. These are basically administrative, rather than recording educational achievement, as they record things like whether the student has returned all borrowed school items, has any outstanding amount owed on their account, or has been taken off the school roll. The school can therefore refuse to release a student’s leaving certificate if there is money owed on the child’s account (for example, for stationery that the family have chosen to get from the school), but not for unpaid donations.
Note: Students and parents can also make specific requests under the privacy and information laws for all other information that the school holds about the student: see “Getting information from the school”.
Dealing with debt collectors hired by the school
If a board of trustees believes that money is owing to the school, it can take steps to recover that money, including hiring a debt collection agency.
Parents should first check that this “debt” is in fact something they’re required to pay. Parents can’t be required to pay the school donation, as this is a voluntary contribution, even if the school describes it as the “school fee”.
However, it will be legitimate for the school to hire debt collectors to recover charges that you do in fact owe – like the cost of lost or damaged library books, or charges for additional events or activities (like school camps) that the parents have agreed to pay.
If you disagree that you owe the debt, or with the specific amount that the school is claiming, it’s important to write to both the debt collection agency and the school as soon as possible. If you can’t come to an agreement, ask for help from YouthLaw or your nearest Community Law Centre (see www.youthlaw.co.nz)