PARENTS are having to make tough decisions about the education of their children as the drought continues across large areas of Australia, according to the Isolated Children's Parents' Association.
At this year's federal conference, held in Adelaide, the impact of widespread drought, and flooding in North West Qld, were present, particularly with the impact on education.
In response, the ICPA would like to see the federal government establish a Rural Hardship Education Fund, to help rural and regional children continue their education during tough times.
Immediate past president Wendy Hicks, who stepped down after four years in the role at this conference, was a major driver behind the policy.
She said some families were well into their eighth year of drought and there were very real concerns about how families were going to be able to keep their kids in school.
But she said this fund should not just be available during drought times.
She said the monsoonal flooding in North West Qld earlier this year was another example of its need, as was the live-export ban or dairy crisis, or even major bushfire events.
"These can all lead to almost no income for a family through no fault of their own," she said.
"Then they need to find $17,000 to $30,000 per child each year, after the government allowances."
Ms Hick said there had been precedent for this - in 2005 the Assistance for Isolated Children was increased, and again in 2008-11, along with some extra funding for rural schools.
"We haven't seen anything like that this time," she said.
Ms Hick said the benefit of setting up a fund for all hardships was to have it in place, ready to go, when disaster struck.
The most distressing we've heard is some families are choosing between children - which should receive an education.
ICPA - NSW president Claire Butler said after hearing "on the grapevine" that students were being pulled from boarding school, due to the drought, the state council had created an online survey, which received 219 responses from members and non-members across a seven day period.
She said the survey results showed 5 per cent of respondents had already pulled their students out of boarding school, due to cost.
"That's 10 children - but any child is a valid number for concern," she said.
"We found 17pc had held off on sending their children away to school - for the majority, their only other choice is distance education."
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She said some of these may have a child already away at school and they were forced to hold back a second, due to finances, until either the first child finished or the drought broke.
Of those who were able to keep their children in school, the survey showed some families were borrowing from other family members or increasing their overdraft.
"They're juggling feeding sheep with educating their children," she said.
"A lot was because of the support of the schools - we found 36pc were on a payment plan with their school.
"There has been significant help from the boarding schools but how long can these businesses do that and will that impact on future bursaries or scholarships?"
Ms Butler said other findings from the survey showed 70pc were not attending extracurricular activities, such as music or sport - in part because they could not spare the time, but often because of the extra cost.
"That's a huge number and it's just adding to the isolation," she said.
She said another 15pc were considering separating the family and setting up a second home in-town to allow their children to attend a local school.
Ms Butler said this survey served as a "snapshot" and more work needed to be done, in more areas.
Ms Hick said she had heard similar reports.
She said families were going into debt or having one parent move into town, which leaves the other parent to struggle at home alone.
"Others may leave (the area)," she said.
"The most distressing we've heard is some families are choosing between children - which should receive an education.
"This shouldn't be happening."
Richmond Qld branch member Kim Hughes said a fund like this would be helpful in North West Qld following devastating funds.
Those affected did receive an extra one-off $1000 increase to their AIC but there are concerns the flood impact will be long-lasting.
"There are families in northern Qld that have been left with nothing - no money and no assets," Ms Hughes said.
"The first priority for rural families is always the education of their kids and when they don't have the capacity to do that is when things get rough."
She said having a fund in place would speed up the support available and stop the need to lobby each time.
Ms Hick said the fact the government was developing a Future Fund may make them receptive to establishing a fund such as this.
As well as calling on the government for an emergency hardship fund, ICPA will also lobby for an increase in the AIC to be more in line with boarding school costs, which had risen between 4-6pc each year - in excess of the AIC rise with the Consumer Price Index, and for low-interest loans to help cover the gap between the AIC and their school fees.
In announcing this motion, the Hay, NSW, branch said this would bring a good return on investment, not just monetarily, but by educating people to help grow regional areas.
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The story ICPA calls for hardship fund to battle flood, drought first appeared on Stock Journal.