Scholarship exam fees a barrier for low decile schools

Parents and teachers are concerned higher scholarship exam fees could exclude some students. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is charging $30 per scholarship exam this year to try to curb the number of students who don’t show up on the day.

NZQA indicated schools would foot the bill for those families who couldn’t afford the fees but who didn’t meet the criteria for financial assistance.

“Schools manage financial assistance and our advice to any concerned family member would be to continue to work with their school,” NZQA deputy chief executive Richard Thornton said.

Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said schools were constantly being asked to stump up cash for extras – whether it be for families who could not afford to pay for their children’s school camp or exam fees.

Previously students could sit up to three scholarship exams for free providing they paid their $76 NCEA fee. That fee also remains under the new structure.

In 2013 NZQA surveyed parents, teachers and students about the $30 per exam proposal and while most agreed it would deter students from not showing up, the survey did not ask whether the fee was a good idea.

Of those surveyed, 48 per cent had specific concerns about the increase.

Most concerns centred on students from low-income families being discouraged from sitting the exams.

“It will be a major disincentive to groups the mInistry and NZQA are trying to target such as Pasifika and Maori learners who are over-represented in lower socio economic areas, not just those that count for financial assistance but also the next group up,” one person wrote.

Another wrote: “I am concerned that a separate fee for all scholarship entries could mean that some very able students choose not to sit scholarship.”

Hipkins said the increase was yet another burden for parents who are “increasingly being asked to fork out for what’s supposed to be a free education”.

Offering financial assistance to low-income families wasn’t that cut and dry, he said.

“For starters if you’re a kid from a low income family and you’re not overly confident, the fact there’s a fee and you have to apply for financial assistance might be the thing that discourages you from applying at all. That might be the final straw.”

Thornton said under the old fee structure there was an absentee rate of 25 per cent and the fee would act as a “disincentive” to those not really interested in showing up.

The amount was chosen as an appropriate balance between discouraging the “non-genuine” students while not being a financial burden.

Financial assistance is offered to families receiving a benefit or who hold a community services card and those families whose joint income would qualify them for a community services card.

Help is also provided to families with two or more children who will face a bill of more than $200 regardless of their income.

Hipkins said the fee piled more hurdles on to low-income families.

“What they’re saying is there’s a whole lot of students who don’t turn up so we’re going to punish the ones who do.”

“There are a small number of schools who will enter a whole heap of students who then don’t turn up. There should be some deterrent to stop schools from doing that,” he said.

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