School fundraising fact, fiction, fantasy and a possible future

School fundraising is such an accepted part of our society it rarely attracts critical attention. With help from a Walkley grant for freelance journalists, Vivienne Pearson and Margaret Paton hope to change this, and consider whether the disruption of COVID-19 brings the potential for a rethink.

Walkley Foundation
Apr 9, 2020 · 12 min read
Photo: Patrick Williams, ABC News.

What propelled us into this project was our hunch that fundraising maintains and exacerbates existing inequities between schools. We planned to delve into the world of data journalism by matching publicly available data from the My School website with the socio-economic status of schools. The idea was to explore whether wealthier schools raise more funds than their poorer counterparts.

“We work our backsides off to raise a few thousand dollars. Other communities that have parents who donate cars to auction, raise in one event what we take four years to raise. It’s demoralising.” — A 56-year-old principal of a public primary school in rural NSW

Our data journalism aspirations were never realised. We discovered the data — how much schools fundraise — was not available. So, instead of going deep, we went broad. Realising just how little scrutiny fundraising has received, we thought about it from all angles, including hearing views from nearly 200 parents, teachers and principals via our online survey over mid-late 2019*.

Here are the facts, fiction and fantasy we’ve explored across a year of research and writing. And, as this is being written in a time of COVID-19, we’ll do some initial thinking about what this might mean for the future of fundraising.

Facts: in short supply

The description of one of the My School website finance categories includes the word ‘fundraising’. But most traditional parent-led fundraising — raffles, sausage sizzles and fetes — is not included in these figures. Indeed, it is not systematically recorded anywhere.

We don’t know the degree to which fundraising props up our clearly inadequately funded education system. And it seems those who should be concerned about this, such as education ministers, don’t care.

“P&C and other parent fundraising data is not collected by the Australian Government Department of Education.” — Spokesperson for Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan.

Academics who have helped us demystify the tangly web of education funding systems are now wondering whether fundraising is an additional area needing research.

“It’s a problem that MySchool doesn’t consistently capture the funds raised by the hard work and generosity of parents and the school community, because funding needs to be as transparent as possible.” — Dr Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

Our closest estimate for how much fundraising contributes to the public school sector is $380 million per year, or $57,000 per school.

This figure is thanks to ACT Parents, the peak-body of school parent groups in that territory. It’s not a robust figure so caution is needed (and encouraged by ACT Parents). The Australian Capital Territory is a relatively homogenous area of Australia and the figure was never intended to be extrapolated in this way.

However, it fits with our survey, in which most respondents said their schools raised either ‘thousands’ or ‘tens of thousands’ of dollars a year. And it’s also in keeping with research from Queensland University of Technology showing school fetes alone averaged $18,000 profit.

This fundraising figure is largely in addition to the $1.8 billion of private income flowing through Australian public schools each year, for subject levies, voluntary contributions and excursion fees.

“Public schools across Australia are being asked to operate more as private entities in leveraging funding from private sources.” — Greg Thompson, Anna Hogan and Mark Rahimi, Queensland University of Technology in a 2019 Australian Educational Researcher academic paper

It is also in addition to money that parents and teachers pay directly to provide resources such as tissues and gluesticks. A 2018 Australian Education Union survey revealed that nine out of ten teachers use their own money to buy supplies for their schools and students with around half spending $500 and one-fifth spending more than $1,000 in a school year.

In some states, some parent-led fundraising income is channelled through school councils and therefore features in My School numbers. But in other states, including NSW, Queensland and ACT, parent-led fundraising money is kept entirely separate.

Federal and state governments aren’t keen to foster fundraising discussions. We received responses to our questions from only half the national and state/territory education departments contacted.

“Fundraising occurring in schools is a matter for a school’s parents & citizens council.” — ACT Education Directorate spokesperson.

Our requests for background information from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA — the body that runs the My School website) were declined. Our questions were deflected with links to hefty documents that would prompt white knuckles even from experienced statisticians.

Parent group peak bodies were only marginally more responsive.

School principals were also extremely reluctant to speak, even off the record. We suspect this is due to a combination of oppressive workloads and policies preventing principals from speaking to the media. There is also a high court precedent for dismissal without recourse resulting from public servants criticising government policy.

“Teachers should be allowed to speak about their profession, they should be allowed a voice, allowed to talk about the important work they do.” — Gabbie Stroud, former teacher, author and teaching advocate

Teachers, who are similarly gagged, responded to our survey saying they have long been expected to volunteer for fundraising activities on top of their already overwhelming workloads.

“A teacher at my school is spending one week of her long service leave to get the spring fair set up.” — Emily, a 28-year-old teacher (and mother of one) about her Queensland peri-urban public primary school

What if tax office employees had to sell cakes to fund software needed to do their job, or bring boxes of tissues for the office to share? Is it even legal to fundraise for shortfalls in funding when you are a public-servant?

“I recall the saying: ‘It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the army has to hold a cake stall to buy a bomber’.” — David, a 52-year-old father of two at a regional Victorian public primary school.

One fact rarely discussed is that fundraising is a feminist issue.

Given that fathers and male teachers do contribute to fundraising, this discussion comes with the disclaimer of #notallmen. But, according to a large-scale survey by Queensland University of Technology, mothers do 75% to 90% of fundraising.

“The group was previously called Mother Funders and is all women apart from myself.” — A 43-year-old father of two at a Victorian peri-urban primary school

These are women also responsible for most child-raising, household-running, emotional-load bearing and older generation care.

“There is an attitude that stay at home mums have nothing better to do so we will happily sit and work on school projects.” — A 38-year-old mother of three and a former P&C president at a regional Queensland public primary school

Some mothers who responded to our survey reported doing hundreds of hours of voluntary fundraising each year. Some parent groups are voluntarily running businesses such as canteens and out-of-hours school care programs, employing staff and earning six-figure surpluses annually. All in the name of school fundraising.

These women don’t earn an income from this work, nor do they accumulate superannuation or pay tax.

And, let’s not forget that most teachers are female.

Our original thesis was that some schools — private ones in particular — have a massive capacity to fundraise from wealthy alumni as well as current families.

“Our local private school just built a $6 million music room. Our local state school has 30 year old toilet blocks, demountable classrooms and no air-con. How can some school students have access to so much and others so little?” — A 38-year-old parent of three at a Perth public primary school

This disparity is above all other funding inequalities.

“Schools having to rely on fundraising exacerbates the inequities in our schooling system. .Already advantaged schools can use their greater resources to raise more money than can less well-resourced schools, and so extend their advantage.” — Alan Reid AM, Professor Emeritus of Education, University of South Australia

Despite our critique of fundraising, we do not want to shame parents’ and teachers’ efforts to fill funding gaps.

“Whilst government refuses to fairly fund public education, fundraising is a necessary evil.” — A 43-year-old teacher (and mother of two teens) about her work in a public primary school in regional NSW

Fiction: false narratives

One fiction regularly repeated is volunteers choose to spend their time and energy on fundraising and that the benefits far outweigh any downsides.

Many of our survey respondents did speak about the benefits of their efforts.

“Fundraising allows us to provide resources for our kids that they wouldn’t normally have. It can create new friendships and bring communities together.” — Anonymous, 44-year-old female parent and key position holder of a 9-year old child in a NSW regional primary school

Yet, many parents’ comments revealed their ambivalence, directly or otherwise.

“The positives are when you can see people having a good time after weeks of stress and sleepless nights organising an event.” — Erin, a 38-year old mother of four at a NSW regional city public primary school

Some talk of exhaustion.

And even parents who aren’t involved do not completely escape.

“You’re not obligated to get involved but, if you don’t, you’re made to feel guilty for not digging deep.” — A 37-year-old mother of three primary aged children in a Queensland regional city

Many people are hugely invested in fundraising for schools — both financially and emotionally.

Principals don’t want to rock the boat, knowing the money raised usually funds essentials, not bells and whistles. Some will even support students from their own pockets.

Fundraising activities and events are often defended as being more nuanced than solely about money. Fundraising is so entrenched that it often has a farcical element.

“Many fundraising activities just extract funds from parents, like raffles and walkathons. It is sort of like a compulsory contribution but with lots more work for the organisers.” — Claire, a 44-year-old mother of two Darwin public primary school students

Some say fundraising is the only activity to engage parents. Yet fundraising has dominated the parent-group landscape for so long we perhaps fail to see other parent contributions, such as classroom help and policy input. Perhaps, if freed up from fundraising, parents could contribute in other ways.

“Schools would benefit more from having parents who could engage in teaching, learning and wellbeing issues.” — Pasi Sahlberg, Professor at the University of New South Wales’s Gonski Institute for Education

And, while many parents do find friendship, support and a sense of worth through fundraising (sometimes called ‘friendraising’), there’s also infighting, politics and conflict.

“Our P&C meetings can be brutal!!! A clash of opinions or personalities has managed to bring out the very worst versions of members.” — A 42-year-old mother of two at a regional NSW public primary school.

Some argue it’s not realistic to expect governments to fund every element of public education. Yet, this contrasts with similar economies such as Scandinavian countries.

Research consistently shows many private schools in Australia are funded lavishly through fees and public funding as well as fundraising and donations.

In this era of COVID-19 economic stimulus packages, there is hard evidence that money is available when a crisis hits society across the wealth-spectrum.

“Unfortunately, in Australia it seems that most of the additional money that the Federal government spends on education flows to private schools that don’t need this additional money as they are already over resourced according to the Schooling Resource Standard as a result of their fees charged and combined state and federal funding.” — David Zyngier, Adjunct Associate Professor, Southern Cross University

An oft-heard claim about fundraising is ‘It’s all about the kids’. But is it?

We haven’t yet interviewed kids about fundraising. Some parents told us their kids were not keen without a direct reward, which there often is thanks to the increasing commercialisation of fundraising.

“My son loves fundraising because all of the fundraising his school does involves awarding students who raise the most with prizes — not exactly fostering altruism there in my view.” — A 53 year-old-mother of a 12-year-old at a Catholic primary school in regional NSW

Maybe we’ve lost sight of the purpose of education. We argue it’s not about individuals’ ATAR scores or NAPLAN results. At its core, education is about the growth and wellbeing of our entire society.

“Education is the foundation of a civilisation and should be lavishly funded through our taxes. If we don’t fund public education properly, we’re all idiots, literally!” — Rebecca, a parent of two in a public school in regional Victoria.

A final fiction we’ve encountered is the view fundraising figures are too small to worry about. Our best estimate — of $380 million fundraised annually by public schools — is less than one per cent of the $43.7 billion spent over the same period in that sector.

But if this amount is so trivial, why have parents and teachers been busting their guts to raise it?

Fantasy: imagining our schools without fundraising

Is it possible to imagine an Australia where all schools receive enough money to fully fund education?

Where parents are freed from fundraising responsibilities to focus on all the aspects of their children’s education and development that can only take place at home.

Instead of time spent fundraising, what if those parents with enough time and capacity used their skills and goodwill to support teaching and policy?

A world where, assuming life ‘snaps back’ after the current COVID-19 crisis, small businesses aren’t regularly hit-up for donations ‘for the kids’. Where children aren’t pressured into asking for donations from friends and family to fund our public education system, fuelled by their hope of getting a ‘prize’ for doing so.

And one in which every public school student is no longer portrayed as being charity-worthy for the duration of their school years.

The future: fundraising in a time of COVID-19

As we write, our world is massively different to how it was at the start of the 2020 school year. Then, the idea of almost all Australian students ‘attending school’ from home would have been a sci-fi novel plot, not government policy. The idea of free childcare was declared ‘communist’ less than a year ago by the same government now offering this.

It’s too early to know how the pandemic will affect school fundraising long term. Anecdotally, in the short-term, cancellation of many events and activities is stressing school fundraisers.

Yet, this seems like an ideal time to reimagine the world. Let’s imagine if a fraction of the COVID-19 stimulus money had been used proactively towards funding equity and excellence in education (the first goal of the 2019 Alice Springs (Mpantwe) Education Declaration).

If the pandemic has shown anything, it is that we can change systems and culture, surprisingly quickly when needed.

Schools can be equitably funded. Parents and teachers could remove ‘fundraising’ from their already endless job descriptions.

Teachers could be free to do their challenging work without having to buy or ask parents to buy or fundraise for classroom resources. Principals could meet the demands of an increasingly crowded curriculum without having to wait for the parent committee to fundraise for essential learning resources or repair collapsing infrastructure.

Putting the spotlight on school fundraising allows us to see it for what it is. School fundraising is volunteer work and cash donations that isn’t quantified and exacerbates existing inequities.

Let’s use the current COVID-19 economic shutdown to rethink why fundraising has become such a significant and unquestioned part of school life.

* The survey, at https://forms.gle/c29VZB3xHGkQZKxZ9, has reopened if you would like to share your thoughts on school fundraising.

Vivienne Pearson and Margaret Paton are freelance journalists.

This reporting was funded through the Walkley Public Fund and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas through a Walkley Grant for Freelance Journalism.

Some material and quotes have already been published in other articles arising from this grant:

Two further stories for this series have been delayed due to ABC’s focus on COVID-19 reporting.

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