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NT mum: The real cost of boarding school

EDUCATION COSTS: Mum Sarah Cook talks about the costs of sending her only son to Queensland to boarding school.
EDUCATION COSTS: Mum Sarah Cook talks about the costs of sending her only son to Queensland to boarding school. Thinkstock

TO SEND them away or keep them at home? If you're a regional or remote family and you want to stay where you live, you'll have no choice but to ask yourself this question before your kids finish primary school.

It's a million-dollar question and I'm not cracking a pun. If you add up the costs of a govie (or your non-wage as a home tutor) to supervise your kids through primary school, then add on boarding, tuition, travel and associated costs for senior years, chances are you'll be paying up to $750,000 to educate each child, and for half of those years your child will be enrolled in a public school.

That's right, schools of the air and (most) schools of distance education are government public schools, but it's a standard requirement the family will supervise or provide supervision to deliver the distance education materials, at least until middle years (depending on your school). Even though education is a state responsibility, the Federal Government is very supportive of "parents and carers of children who can't go to a local state school because of geographical isolation, disability or special needs” and pays Assistance for Isolated Children. . Throughout primary school the AIC is about $4000 a year for each child.

However, the same cannot be said for all states, and so far as the Territory Government goes, they're about the worst. Territory Government support is in the hundreds, not thousands, and hardly covers the cost of a week's wages, lets alone the additional cost of accommodation etc for school of the air families to attend in-schools, mini-schools, sports days and presentation nights, up to four times a year.

So, while you pay out hand-over-fist for a govie during primary school, you have some time to consider what boarding school will cost you. A lady emailed me the other day ... "did you know,” she wrote, "by the time our last child finishes school we will have paid out about $765,000 - without travelling costs - to educate our children?” This is not including the cost of a govie while they were in primary school. They spent more than $253,000 for each child to attend boarding school for their six years. Big numbers aren't they?

It's little wonder then that there's a perception people in the bush are on the big bucks, to afford all this money on education. By comparison, who can afford (and who has to?) provide a full-time tutor just to put their kids through a public school? And you'd pretty much have made it if you forked out $50,000 a year to put your kids through secondary school, even in the middle of Melbourne. So why are so many of us doing it?

Well, you have no choice in primary right, so we can all suck that one up, but let's do the math for the non-believers. Let's say $21 an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week. That's minimum wage and $840 per week for the govie, or $43,000 per year. Take away the AIC, we're left with $39,000 for seven years, or $273,000. Phew, no wonder we're all glad when the public schooling primary years are over.

Then brace yourself for the big one. Not only are you paying the same money again (for each child now) for boarding and tuition, but throw in an extra $10,000 for travel expenses - and maybe you'll have some left over to visit your little cherub during the year. So here we are, more broke but grateful because for boarding the AIC is increased to $8000 per year (thanks again, Federal Government). So, boarding on average will cost you about $41,000 a year.

Don't we have better things to do with our hard-earned cash than send our kids to a decent boarding school?

Well, it seems we don't. You see, one of the advantages of living in the bush is the cost of daily living (food, rent, entertainment) is low, or we share these costs with our business (depending on circumstances), so we make the education decision for personal but totally rational reasons. For example, as much as we love the bush we want our kids to discover there is more to the world, to make friends, to participate in sport, drama, debating and music, to be in a safe, connected environment with kids who have common interests, to have family and friends close by, to have subject choices, to form forever friends, to even just make friends.

This year my husband and I sent our only son to boarding school. We were unsure how he'd go leaving home (he's such a country kid, not very academic, loves cows and motorbikes, and the idea of sport - although he'd never really played it), so to give him the best chance we chose a school with cattle on the grounds, with a good ag program and lots of space, that had a strong focus on sport and that was vigilant against bullying. And we wanted family support, so we chose a school close to my husband's parents, who also happened to have some health problems, so we'd hopefully see them more often. We choose Downlands in Toowoomba, Queensland, and we're happy with our decision, but it's come at a cost, and airfares are killing us. Last term I sent him back four days late, just so we could get an airfare under $1000.

Here's the kicker though: my Queensland friends are, in round figures, about $5500 a year better off than me through the Queensland Government Living Away From Home Allowance, which supports eligible Queensland families whose children need to live away from home to attend a state school or an accredited non-state school. It's no secret most of us geographically isolated Territorians think it's highly unfair Queensland, and even New South Wales, support students who travel over the border to access education, but the Territory Government is not convinced. After all, they say, we choose where we live, and why should they support a child who attends school in another state?

At this point I should mention the elephant in the room which makes everyone worry about being labelled racist, and that is the level of support indigenous kids from rural and remote communities receive, which surpasses the NT allowances available to the rest of us.

Take the indigenous lass from my local community who attended a Melbourne boarding school at no cost to her parents, not even for school shoes. Or the chartered flights which pick up and deliver indigenous kids to and from their remote communities each term. Anyone in the bush can tell you a story about this inequity.

Maybe us bush folk are not the type of disadvantaged the Territory Government likes to support, but if it's good enough for other state governments to realise boarding is a normal - if not a necessary - part of living in the bush, then why shouldn't the Territory Government see the rationale?

After all, people in the bush have been supporting the public education system from the moment their children started school.

It's swings and roundabouts for them, but it'd be a bloody god-send for me.

Topics:  boarding school downlands toowoomba education families money northern territory government nt station queensland remote family sarah cook schooling toowoomba


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