Families facing ‘mind boggling’ school and childcare fees hoping for relief this election

Childcare was simple, cheap and a little dangerous when Rose Cantali arrived in Australia in 1961 as a three-year-old Italian immigrant.

Instead of before- or after-school care, Rose walked the streets of Sydney, relying on a string with a house key around her neck.

They were known as “latchkey kids”. Instantly identifiable, the key was a signal to the world they were solo with parental permission.

Neighbors would help with childcare, freeing up Rose’s parents to work hard and make a start in a new country.

But by the time she was raising her own four children from the late 1970s to the 1990s, childcare was very different, albeit at a fraction of what it costs parents today.

Rose doesn’t remember struggling with early education fees when she was raising children. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“You were looking at about I think it was $30 a day at the time, which was very, very manageable,” she said.

“I don’t remember ever struggling.”

The ABC joined Rose and three generations of her family as they shared a meal and some precious moments together.

And just like at many dinner tables around Australia, discussion about rising costs is never far away.

Mathew sits on Rose's lap at the dinner table, while Robyn speaks to Emilia who is reaching for some food.
The ABC joined Mathew, Rose, Robyn and Emilia for a meal.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Unlike Rose’s stress-free childcare arrangements, her daughter-in-law Robyn Cantali estimates childcare for her one-year-old son Mathew and three-year-old daughter Emilia costs her $40,000 a year.

All the same, the impact on the family budget was so big that it was a line ball call on whether Robyn would return to work after her pregnancies.

“With the increased price of living and other expenses, we really had to think whether it was feasible for me,” she said.

Rose holds her granddaughter Emilia close to her chest, as Emilia smiles at the camera.
Rose thinks the bills families pay these days are “mind boggling”.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The 38-year-old is now expecting her third child, adding to the bill.

Then, in the next few years, there’s school to think about.

According to Rose, who sent her four children to private schools, the bills families face today are “mind boggling”. She estimates the cost of education these days is about four times what she paid for her children.

While Rose remembers that it was tough at the time to pay for her children’s school fees, she knows many families today are starting on the backfoot, after years of high early-learning expenses.

Even when accounting for inflation, it is clear childcare is a much bigger drain on the budget for the next generation of the Cantali family.

Public or private, schooling costs thousands

Mathew Cantali playfully brandishing a pink cup and smiling towards the camera.
Robyn believes child care is an important investment for her children.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Data from The Futurity Investment Group, a company that issues education bonds and loans, estimates the national average cost to parents for a child’s school education over 13 years in the public system is $83,869.

For Catholic schools that figure is $143,944 and for independent schools, $349,404. In addition to school fees, the estimates include other expenses such as extracurricular activities and excursions.

However, private schools dispute the figures, claiming it is not academic research and pointing to a much lower median fee.

“I would advise parents to do their own research and be wary of companies framing education costs to suit their commercial objectives,” said Geoff Newcombe from the Association of Independent Schools of NSW.

Emilia sitting at a table drawing on a paper plate.
Rose Cantali estimates education bills today are four times what she paid for her children.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Families have told the ABC that Victorian public schools are charging as much as $11,000 a year in “extracurricular” fees.

Dr Newcombe said the yearly median fee for independent schools in New South Wales was $5,500.

The exact amount parents spend varies across public and independent schools, but data released earlier this year found back to school costs for parents with children in primary and high school will total $20.3 billion this year.

Increasingly, parents are moving to the independent sector — according to the ABS it is now at 35 percent — in human terms that is 1.4 million students.

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