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Paying parents create rich-poor gulf

Australia. A growing reliance on voluntary funding is creating a richpoor divide among state schools in Australia, as those in well-off suburbs can generate 10 times as much per year from private sources as the ones in poor rural regions.

As state governments across the nation have reduced their grants to schools, parents are being forced to pay increasing amounts in so-called "voluntary" fees. However, the school principals must also boost their revenue through donations, fetes, tuckshop profits, raffles and sponsorships.

Figures compiled for almost 300 schools in Victoria revealed that Melbourne high school raised $2.3 million (pound;920,000) in 1996 from non-government sources. A small country primary managed only $2,300.

Schools in the wealthier Melbourne suburbs are able to raise the most. But those in Melbourne's working-class districts, and in rural towns and villages, struggle.

Privately-generated income has become increasingly important to all government schools. The additional money allows them to pay for computers, which parents are demanding, as well as specialist staff such as music teachers and, in primary schools, art and PE teachers.

The Labor opposition in Victoria, which obtained the figures under Freedom of Information laws, highlighted the growing divide between schools. An opposition spokesman said the difference in fund-raising activities meant schools were no longer able to offer equal opportunities to their students.

"We expect the wealthy schools to cream off the best teachers and students from neighbouring areas," the spokesman said. "This is the result of the conservative government telling schools they are on their own, that they must handle their own affairs."

A government spokesman rejected the claims and said schools in disadvantaged areas were compensated for their reduced fund-raising ability by special grants provided to students.

However, principals tell a different story. They have expressed alarm at these developments and have called on the government to increase spending to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor.

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