Remote and rural parents paying about $25,000 annually in boarding school fees as part of their child’s education say the state and federal governments could do more to help keep bush families stay in the country.
A push by the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia for tax breaks for school boarding fees has sparked debate among country parents battling to meet the rising costs of their children’s education, at both secondary and tertiary levels.
Families who lived far enough from a district high school that daily travel was impractical, have to consider whether to send their children to boarding school in the nearest city or regional centre.
Costs for travel, sporting fees and accommodation to support children studying away from home over the six years of high school can add more than $250,000 to the household budget.
That cost is in addition to school fees for those at private schools.
Association president Tony Seabrook spoke with Prime Minister Scott Morrison about allowing boarding fees to be tax deductable.
“The request to government now is not so much just for farming families it’s for the whole of regional and remote Australia, it covers the whole nation.
“The response from politicians is initially negative, it’s that connotation of the private school and of being an elite.
“Comments are raised [that] if they can afford a private school then they shouldn’t need a tax deductable component in that,” Mr Seabrook said.
“But not all rural and remote parents can afford private schools but they still have to pay boarding fees if they are attending government schools.”
Mr Seabrook said the impact of the cost involved had a detrimental effect on families.
“I know farmers that have lost their farms because of the debt incurred in educating children and I’ve seen families broken up by mothers living in Perth with the kids.”
He said it was “imperative” that action was taken to ensure those in rural and regional areas have the opportunity to stay in the country.
Families struggle to cover costs
Kirsty Forshaw runs Nita Downs Station, two and a half hours drive south of Broome.
It costs Ms Forshaw and her husband $50,000 a year in boarding fees alone to send their two children to school in Perth.
“Somehow but not always we manage to find a way to do it.
“It’s not necessarily that we have that money sitting in the bank account, we find ways to juggle, to manage.”
She said a tax break would make a “big difference” to enable people to stay on the land.
“Just with that help with the cost and all that stress of financial stress compounds especially when you are worried about your kids’ education.
“That’s when it really hits hard, so that would take away a lot of pressure.”
Lack of help for tertiary students
Farmers Chrissy and Doug Nichol north of Hyden in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt faced a similar challenge.
Their nearest secondary school teaches only to year 10 so the couple has sent two of their children to senior school in Perth.
Their eldest child is at university.
Federal and state government allowances covered about $10,000 annually per child for the younger children, and the couple paid an additional $14,000 to cover the boarding fees.
But Ms Nichol said there was no financial support for her oldest son who went to university from high school and was not eligible for any government allowance.
“This year I am looking at giving him $800 a month to get him through and get his rent paid and things like that,” she said.
“We chose to live out here, I get that but I want to encourage my children to go to university and we would like to see the AIC [Assistance for Isolated Children Scheme] continue on to tertiary students.
“He’s not deemed independent because he hasn’t taken a gap year and earned an income for a year.
“So once he decides to go to uni, because he has decided not to take a gap year, there’s no assistance.”
Government changes help some, not all
The Federal Member for O’Connor Rick Wilson said the government has recently increased the parent income cap for students seeking the independent youth allowance.
But he acknowledged that students effectively have to take a gap year after finishing secondary school in order to qualify for the allowance.
“We have increased that in the last 12 months to $160,000 plus $10,000 for each child in the family.
“That has increased the cap to making independent youth allowance a lot more accessible for regional families.”
State Nationals Member for Roe Peter Rundle said reinstating the full Boarding Away from Home Allowance would help families to keep living and working in the regions.
In 2017 the WA Government axed a Royalties for Regions subsidy that had been helping regional families with education costs.
“I would love to see the boarding away from home allowance reinstated to its original level over $2,100 per annum.
“It’s been cut back to $1,477 over four years, so I think the current State Government needs to look at reinstating it to the full amount.”
Year-by-year reductions to the Boarding Away from Home Allowance means parents will need to find an extra $628 per child by 2021, an amount which was originally topped up Royalties for Regions funding.
In a statement to the ABC, the WA Education Minister Sue Ellery said:
“There is no plan to change the reduction to the Boarding Away from Home Allowance announced in 2017.
“This year  all eligible parents will receive a payment of $1791 for each child who boards.”
Financial impact hits hard
Famers Claire and Damian Ness from south of Newdegate, budget to set aside the $50,000 a year needed to meet the boarding fees to send their two children to school in Perth.
Ms Ness said the cutback in the Boarding Away from Home Allowance appeared to be” penny pinching” by the State Government.
She said it made the job of meeting tight budgets even harder for remote families.
The government’s policy change in 2015 moving year seven from primary to secondary school, has also exacerbated costs for families by adding an extra year of boarding fees to account for.