Parental payments are an emotive subject, and rightly so. We’re fortunate in this country to have an education system that’s mostly funded by public money raised through taxes. In an ideal world, this would be enough to cover all operational costs and enable schools to develop and progress in line with their students’ needs – but the reality is somewhat different!
We’re still seeing a policy of financial austerity being extended across many areas of public spending, and education has certainly been on the receiving end. Yes, as Theresa May and others have noted on various occasions, it’s true that the amount of money being put into education has risen to the point where it currently stands at record levels. However, this overall funding figure fails to take into account rising pupil numbers and increasing actual costs at the operational level.
The DfE itself has announced that pupil numbers will rise by over 7 million between 2016 and 2025. Couple that with the freeze placed on per pupil funding by the government in 2015, and we’re facing what the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts will be a further 8% real terms cut per pupil. We’ll see schools continuing to receive less income, while having to contend with increasing costs – which, incidentally, have been further added to by rises in national insurance, employer pension contributions and the apprenticeship levy. The National Funding Formula changes won’t be able to resolve this disparity.
As schools look at how to preserve what’s left of their budgets, the notion of turning to parental contributions doesn’t seem quite so immoral. Yet the question remains – how can we get our parents on board with the idea of supporting their child’s school financially, and what should their contributions be put towards?
Policy and procedure
The first part of the process must be focused on information gathering and getting your stakeholders on board. This doesn’t mean you should come straight out and state publicly that the school needs more money – all that’s likely to do is prompt people to cite the ‘school funding has never been higher’ argument outlined above. Instead, you need to ensure that:
- Staff are behind you; if a colleague doesn’t agree with the rationale behind your efforts to seek parental funding, they won’t effectively promote it to pupils and parents themselves. Seek input, ideas and feedback from everyone first.
- Governors are aware of the legal and financial implications involved, and are prepared to approve whatever approach you decide to opt for.
- Your school’s parental forums are used to identify and highlight those areas that parents would be willing to support
- You do some research into how other schools in your area raise funds and collaborate; if all nearby schools operate a similar policy in this area, you can assume that’s the practice your parents will expect to see.
Your school will likely already have a charging and remissions policy in place. If not, now’s a good time to devise one. This should clearly state what the school can charge for, what’s compulsory for parents to pay for and the type of items that you’ll be asking for contributions towards.
You can also use it to explain the terms under which certain things won’t be provided by the school – for instance, the extent to which the school will subsidise a trip before it’s cancelled. The policy should then be shared with parents at the earliest opportunity, since a working document will be invaluable in getting parents onside.
Expectations and transparency
If you’ve decided as a school to ask for annual parental contributions, make sure this is advertised at admissions time and see to it that parents know what their contributions will be used for. If someone’s able to see that what they’re paying for is worthwhile and represents good value for money, they’re more likely to contribute and engage with the process.
Many parents and carers will be all too willing to support their school, but doing so might be a financial struggle for some. Offer the facility for parents to set up monthly payments, provide the option to pay online and/or via direct debit, and look into offering discounts for families with more than one child.
If your school community ultimately decides not to pursue the route of asking parents for financial contributions, consider instead asking for help in other ways (see ‘How else can parents help?’). A parent at one of my primary schools ran a fast food outlet. Students were able to visit the premises, find out what the process of running the business involved and even got to make some food of their own – a curriculumrelevant school trip with minimal outlay.
Voluntary vs mandatory
So what should you charge for? There’s been some coverage in the popular press of schools demanding parental contributions for help in securing essential classroom items, but I believe this is where we have to be careful. It’s not acceptable for our system to come across as one that expects parents to pay for their child’s ‘free’ education. When setting your budget, it’s important to recognise that your core funding can and should pay for the school’s basic operational costs.
That said, parents and carers have historically held certain expectations when it comes to contributing to school trips and other activities. I can remember, as a student, being asked to bring in either items or money for supplies to assist with resource shortages in cookery and some other subjects. It’s not a new phenomenon – there are things you can legitimately ask for help with. We can define what those things might be by sorting them into the categories of ‘voluntary contributions’ and ‘charges’.
- Trips with curriculum-linked educational elements that take place on a standard school day or outside school hours
- Contributions towards specific educational activities
- Supplies (such as providing students with pencils, pens and other stationary)Instrumental tuition provided as part of standard school activities
According to guidance issued by the DfE, the above are all areas that schools can’t demand that parents pay for. Conversely, schools are able to levy charges for the following:
- Residential tips (though be aware that your charging and remissions policy might include some exceptions)
- Supplemental activities and trips Schools have the option of asking parents to cover some of the costs entailed by a school trip or other activity, but only up to a point – for example, it won’t be possible to put parental contributions towards the cost of sourcing supply staff to cover any pupils not attending.
How else can parents help?
If your school community is unable or unwilling to cover certain costs with financial contributions from parents, consider the following:
It can help to share what you’re doing, communicate it well and collaborate with others.
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent