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

By national education and parenting reporter Conor Duffy and the Specialist Reporting Team's Sarah Sedghi
Grandmother Rose (left) is worried about how much childcare costs for her daughter-in-law Robyn. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

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.

Neighbours 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.

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 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

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.

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 per cent — in human terms that is 1.4 million students.

Comparisons to previous generations based on data are difficult to find but few parents would dispute that it is getting more expensive.

What are the parties offering?

In education, the biggest policy differences are found in early learning.

The Coalition announced $3.3 billion in pre-school funding and extra rebates for parents with kids in childcare that kicked in earlier this year.

Labor is offering bigger rebates to most families earning up to $530,000, kicking in from July 2023 at a cost the party estimates at $5.4 billion.

Neither major party has any significant university reforms planned, but the Greens are promising to waive all student debt. It is unlikely to happen.

Robyn Cantali is already saving for her chlidren's education. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Robyn is not sure where she will send Emilia and Mathew, but she is already saving to pay for it.

"It is not so much about private or public or independent, [it] is really about what is the best thing we can possibly do for our children," she said.

For Rose and Robyn Cantali, helping young families with the cost is something they would like both sides of politics to focus on.

"We are not seeing any outcomes of all of this. I think the community is not seeing any movement," Ms Cantali said.

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Dive Deeper:
Childcare policies 'miss the mark' as nine million Australians struggle to access care, research shows
Families in rural and regional areas are calling out a flawed childcare model as a study finds more than a…
Ministers accused of cutting corners on childcare staffing ratios
Government may allow one adult to look after five two-year-olds in England, in effort to reduce costs
As the federal election looms, study finds nearly a third of children in seat of Parkes are being left behind
Children in New South Wales largest electorate are three times more likely to struggle with their development compared to those…
If governments were really concerned about tax and the cost of living they would cut the cost of childcare
Amid the talk about tax changes set to cut the middle-income rate to 30%, a shortage of workers and incomes…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Moving from city to regional Australia means dealing with severe gap in affordable health care
For South Coast NSW resident Kim Hawkins, keeping up with medical expenses has been a real struggle since moving from…
As schools reopen after two-year hiatus, parents feel the pinch
Prices of school supplies go up, affecting lower income families across State
Get all your news in one place