Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has so far remained non-committal on the subject, choosing instead to highlight other programs the Government has in place, including recent changes to the Farm Household Allowance.
“We know and have seen firsthand how drought conditions can have devastating flow-on effects on education,” Birmingham told EducationHQ.
“Help is on the way.
"Earlier this week we announced up to $12,000 extra for each farm household, to help cover the costs of bills for things like school fees while families are combatting the drought.
“That extra support comes on top of our recent announcements including new scholarship programs, regional study hubs and an extra $2.9 billion for regional school students, as well as $53.9 million to increase the availability of Youth Allowance.
“Taken together, the focus of our programs is on ensuring every student, no matter where they live or their circumstances, has access to a great education.”
Wendy Hick, federal president of the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA), which has spearheaded the push for a Rural Hardship Education Fund, said that, while the ICPA appreciates the support programs that are already in place, they do not fully address the issue.
“The Farm Household Allowance ... doesn’t exist just for the purpose of education, in fact that’s not even mentioned on the website,” she said.
“It says ‘for payment of household bills and financial circumstances’.
"However, the Minister for Education was quite clear ... when we spoke with his office that it could be used for education, if a family wanted to.
“[It's] $12,000 per family. If you have two to four children at a boarding school, unfortunately that’s not going to go very far.
"It also doesn’t cover non-farming families, it is only for farmers, and the students that are trying to access education in these situations that are affected, out in rural and remote communities, they’re not always the farming families.”
The ICPA wants to see the introduction of a specialised fund that would provide all rural families with assistance during periods of hardship.
The fund would be available to rural households during droughts, fires, floods or unforseen industry crises.
“We’d like to see it as an ongoing program that was established, so that every time one of these situations arises we don’t recreate the wheel and have to try to fight to get it in a drought package or in a natural disaster package, that it was always in place to help these families,” Hick said.
“... we’re just asking that something becomes permanently in place, so that families don’t go through this every time ... so that the essential service of education can continue uninterrupted for these students.”
Hick said that the financial pressures placed on rural families in difficult circumstances can carry a mental toll.
“There’s a huge burden placed on these families.
"Parents talk about the pressure that they feel, I guess the disappointment that they have, and the fact that they struggle to provide a basic need, a basic right to their children — that of education.
“When they can’t meet the costs that are required to get these children to education ... they feel that they just haven’t done right by their family.”
Hick said this mental struggle affects children as well, particularly those studying at boarding schools.
“... these children realise that part of the problem, part of the struggle, is the cost of having them in school, so they feel guilty for having them in school in the first place, because they know it’s putting more pressure on their family.
“They also feel guilty for being away at school, because they feel that they should be at home helping the family.”