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28 February 2014

Unpaid school fees lead to 700 arrest warrants in South Australia

Education department says warrants are issued to parents who fail to attend hearings or obey court orders

Almost 2,000 families were prosecuted last financial year by South Australia's education department over unpaid fees.

Almost 700 arrest warrants were issued for South Australian parents last year for failing to pay their children's public school fees, state education department figures show.

Schools were also turning to education department debt collectors to recover increasing sums of money from parents: $1.2m for the financial year ending July 2013, more than triple the amount recovered in 2008-09.

South Australia's education department says the arrest warrants are issued to parents who fail to attend court hearings or comply with previous court orders on their unpaid debts, and that no parents have been incarcerated as a result of this recovery action. It said that legal action was a last resort, used only after other options, such as negotiating to have the fees paid in instalments, had been exhausted.

Schools charge the fees, an average of $289 for primary school children and $383 for secondary, to help pay for stationery, school camps, IT equipment and photocopying.

The president of the South Australian Primary Principals Association, Pam Kent, said it was not poor families who were not paying up. The people who are not paying the fees are the ones who can afford it, she said.

She added: I think they take the definition of public education as free schooling very literally. But really, it's a very small amount of money for a fantastic service.

The increase could be partly attributed to the government cracking down on parents who refused to pay up, according to Kent.

It's always been a problem and up until recent years, most schools employed their own debt collectors, she said. Recently the department has stepped in to do it for schools, which has been a welcome change.

Struggling families can apply for a school card scheme in which the bulk of the fee is covered by the state government.

But not all cash-strapped families are covered by the card scheme, the president of the SA Association of School Parents Club, Jenice Zerna, said.

Some parents feel like they can't apply, she said. They feel ashamed about it. It's a case of pride. Then there are others who don't realise they're eligible to apply.

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