Just when parents thought that school wasn’t so expensive enough, schools manage to find a way. don’t they?
School uniforms are vastly overpriced – the blazers and jackets and ties are all painfully expensive from my experience, not to mention the fact I was a growing boy who didn’t mind sliding about on the grass playing football. Then you can add in the cost of exercise books and stationery and suddenly you’re totting up quite the bill.
Schools are given certain regulations on how they can and cannot ask for money if something is ‘required. A child can’t be refused access to something within the school’s activities because they cannot afford to pay for something, which can of course present an issue to a school.
What a school often does to help raise money is to ask for a ‘voluntary contribution’ from parents for different activities – ranging from school trips and cake sales to food for a pupil party. It doesn’t have to be just money, as you can tell.
One of the important things to note is that the rules on voluntary contributions is that the school cannot ask for them if the activity forms a compulsory part of the curriculum, for example something related to a lesson. This stops schools from putting parents under pressure to fund everything that their child does in school, especially if it’s related to their education. For the majority of students in the UK, that does represent the idea that secondary education is generally free – OK, so you’ve got stationary and uniform but at least you’re not paying for any content in the actual lessons.
Unfortunately, the reality is somewhat different.
In a survey of 500 staff by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 26% said that parents had been asked for a voluntary contribution towards textbooks and revision material. Yes, that regulation banning such requests for curriculum material appears to have been very much ignored. 90% of schools also appear to ask parents for contributions for things like school trips and other activities, even if they are related to the curriculum.
In 30% of cases, if parents couldn’t contribute, the school made up the difference – it would be rather interesting to note what would happen if schools decided not too. Maybe they just accept the loss as surely they wouldn’t deny a pupil access to learning.
To be fair, at least staff are seeing the dangers of asking for voluntary contributions for such material – 46% of those surveyed worry that making these requests can potentially put a child at risk of disadvantage. Are they unfairly judged by others if they can’t contribute, for instance?
To be precise on a few details, the Department for Education has a specific set of guidelines for voluntary contributions. It says that “Nothing in the legislation prevents a school governing authority or local authority from asking for voluntary contributions for the benefit of the school or any school activities.’
The guidelines do however add a little extra part which states that ‘When making requests for voluntary contributions, parents must not be made to feel under pressure into paying as it is voluntary and not compulsory.’
All of this does seem a little troubling. Schools obviously have budgetary issues here if there are aspects of the education they are having to ask parents for help with.
Asking parents for contributions toward textbooks represents a mixture of some serious underfunding and some broad mismanagement. I’m not quite sure who I should be blaming the least here – it’s fairly key that, whilst schools do need a better budget to help with something as basic as textbooks or revision material, schools should be perhaps even slightly prepared and have to cut back on things that aren’t totally necessary, such as multi-million pound gyms and sports halls. I dread to think what would happen if every school was a control-free academy… Would asking parents to contribute towards textbooks be even greater? Undoubtedly.
I can understand the desire to ask parents to contribute towards school trips. Yes, it forms part of a course, but at the end of the day, I can’t imagine every school up and down the nation can afford to get every pupil out on day trips to X and Y for that particular subject, as much as we’d love them to.
The one thing that I think needs to be addressed is this notion that parents can’t be put under pressure to perform. I can certainly say that, during my time at school, I did have to take back letters from my school that definitely did put pressure on my parents to fork out cash. I can remember a few things, in fact.
- I can remember the classic ‘This forms a compulsory part of your son/daughter’s coursework.’ OK, so it’s not explicitly saying that they have to pay, but can you imagine what the teachers are going to think of you if your parents chose not to pay for that survey-collecting trip to Cheddar Gorge?
- ‘No student will be excluded if they cannot afford to pay. However, we won’t be able to run the trip as we rely on the contributions of parents to fund these activities…’ Oh I see now, it’s not just your child’s education you’re putting at risk now, it’s everyone else’s in the year group too. Shame on you for not paying.
- I can also remember the box ticking thing where the options were ‘I am happy to contribute £x for this activity’ or ‘I don’t want to contribute.’ Gee, that second option sounds a little bit rude, doesn’t it? Better pop that £10 note in the envelope.
Of course schools put parents under pressure to perform – it’s a way of bringing in more finances under the idea of ‘well, you care about your kid’s education, don’t you?’
Of course, there is the idea that parents should be willing to contribute, since the education is already free. To some degree I agree, since parents are happy to help pay for uniform and the like. However, then again they’re not throwing thousands of pounds a term at this – this is state education. The budget for schools comes out of parent’s back pockets anyway.
I don’t think this is a debate so much about the contributions parents are clearly expected to make. I think this is a case of prioritising in schools to make sure that education and textbooks come first.