Your child's CCA can cost you big bucks

Outlay can go as high as thousands of dollars; it helps to treat it as a long-term investment

It's the start of the school year and you've bought the books and uniforms, you've paid the Chinese tuition fees. Now be prepared to spend hundreds, even thousands, more on your child's CCA.

CCAs started out as ECAs - extra-curricular activities that you took up in school at practically no cost to your parents. In a time long ago, I learnt to play netball from a regular teacher, never had to buy special shoes or uniforms or equipment, and played for fun rather than to win competitions.

But in 1999, extra-curricular activities became important co-curricular activities - the name change to send a clear statement to teachers, students and parents that these were now an integral part of a "holistic" education, and not an add-on or option.

CCAs today can determine if your child gains direct school admission (DSA) to a choice secondary school, they count for those crucial one or two more points needed for entry into a junior college, and are taken into account in university admissions and scholarships.

My primary school daughter whose CCA is netball, has a former national player as her coach and trains up to four times a week to take part in national-level competitions.

Edusave can be used to pay for CCAs but is often not enough. CCAs like violin or tennis can cost a few hundred dollars a year, never mind more expensive ones like golf or sailing.

On the upside, our children are being coached by highly qualified instructors to play at a much higher level, they develop important skills and discover and hone talents.

On the downside - apart from the amount of time spent on CCAs on top of studies and the stress that may involve - is the heavy investment.

So parents, consider carefully all the costs down the (long) road as you help your child choose a CCA.

Let's look at the basic costs first. CCAs offered in schools include the performing arts, clubs and societies, physical sports and uniformed groups. A few are non-paying but most are not. Looking at the list I received last week from my girl's primary school, I count just five non-paying CCAs (which include Brownies, Girls' Brigade and Prefectorial Board) versus 21 paying ones.

North Vista Secondary School students taking up golf as a CCA. Some CCAs are non-paying, but most are not, with the fees going to pay for external instructors, the booking of outside facilities and transportation cost. On top of the basic CCA fees, there is also the cost of equipment to consider. ST FILE PHOTO

CCA fees come from paying for external instructors, the booking of outside facilities and transportation costs. Schools pay for some of it so parents don't bear the full burden.

Edusave can be used to pay for CCAs but is often not enough. CCAs like violin or tennis can cost a few hundred dollars a year, never mind more expensive ones like golf or sailing. And Edusave used up for a CCA means cash payment for all the other extras parents have to pay for (I just got a bill for $119 from my daughter's school for the school magazine, newsletter, leadership training, and so on ).

On top of the basic CCA fees is the cost of equipment you may have to buy. For my daughter's netball, there's proper shoes that can cost more than $100. School team players are also encouraged to get a netball of their own and weights for extra training at home. For my older girl in secondary school, it was over $1,000 for fencing equipment, from the foil to the mask, protective garb, gloves and shoes. Unfortunately, fencing was the only CCA she got into after her school's CCA trials, apart from a uniformed group.

And because CCAs now are taken so seriously and geared towards quantifiable achievement, there may be extra to pay in terms of examinations - like those of the Royal Academy of Dance for ballet or Trinity Guildhall for speech and drama - and competitions. If your child gets selected for an overseas competition, parents generally have to pay some of the cost of the flight and hotel stay.

A whole enrichment industry for CCAs has sprung up - like those expensive tuition centres that promise to get your child into the Gifted Education Programme. Some parents see paying for this extra coaching outside school as worth it if it can get their child "DSA-ed". A parent I know pays $960 a month for chess lessons four times a week for her Primary 3 son.

CCAs have become more and more competitive too, putting greater financial pressure on parents. When my son wanted to take up badminton just for fun in Primary 5, the private trainer, assuming he wanted to get into the school CCA, said it was too late for him and that he should have started at Primary 1 or 2 as most of his students did.

When your child does embark on a CCA, there are ways to cut costs.

You don't have to buy everything - or even anything - new, especially in primary school when your child is just starting out and may go through different CCAs. So don't waste money on the best brands and new equipment. The best source for getting second-hand equipment may be other parents. Most CCAs or classes now have WhatsApp networking parent groups. Don't be shy and advertise there that you are looking for shoes or racquets or musical instruments that another child has outgrown or no longer needs.

When your child is older and has attained some level of achievement, consider the barter trade. During the last school holidays, my friend's daughter mucked out the stalls and helped with the horses at a horseriding club and my son helped teach chess to little kids, in exchange for their own free lessons.

Of course, what would really help, short of rethinking the role of CCAs in school, is a more level playing field. Less well-off parents need help at the foundation level if their children are to get an equal shot at finding and discovering their talents and interests.

Ultimately, it helps to look at CCAs as a long-term investment in your children that can have unexpected payoffs. My oldest child, fresh from her A levels, starts next week on her job as a trainee riding instructor. Another friend's son, now at university, busks here and overseas, earning hundreds of dollars each time with his magic show - his showmanship skills developed through years of drama practice in school. Who knows what else they will achieve?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'Your child's CCA can cost you big bucks '. Print Edition | Subscribe