Parents give state schools £200m every year to stop cutbacks

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The Independent Online

Parents are paying a record £200m a year to prevent state schools making cuts, a survey has found. A growing number of schools are asking parents to covenant up to £35 a month to help pay for essential equipment and even teachers' salaries, according to the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations (NCPTA).

Even traditional jumble sales and fund-raising by schools are raising 50 per cent more than a decade ago.

A survey by the NCPTA revealed that £60m is coming into schools' coffers from traditional routes. However, it is the growing trend of schools requesting parents to covenant money that is worrying parents' leaders.

A spokeswoman for the NCPTA, Margaret Morrissey, said that evidence showed extra requests for funding in the wake of last year's school funding crisis, which saw more than 1,000 teachers made redundant, meant the total raised by parents had exceeded £200mfor the first time.

"Of course, the schools always say that it is on a voluntary basis. But many schools say things in their prospectus like, 'we do ask parents to make a contribution towards the school'," she said.

"Then when you're seeking a school place you're asked: 'you've read our prospectus, do you agree with it?' It's very difficult to say 'no, I won't contribute'."

Mrs Morrissey added: "Parents are concerned about it. I know schools say 'we don't differentiate between parents who pay and parents who don't pay' but parents do feel uncomfortable about it. Also, it is undoubtedly the case that schools in the more affluent suburbs find it easier to raise money that those in the more deprived inner cities."

Yvonne Treves, the NCPTA's field officer for the London region, said most PTA's were registered charities, which made it easier for them to seek financial support from local industry to help pay for school developments.

"We advise PTA's that if they raise more than £1,000 a year they should apply for charitable status," she said. "That makes it much easier to go to the local community and ask 'can you support us?'

"Some schools do struggle, though, particularly if there is a language problem with parents from ethnic minority groups. That is a huge hurdle for them."

The most celebrated case of a school asking parents for money was the decision by the London Oratory School, attended by Tony Blair's two elder sons, to ask its parents to covenant £35 a month to the school.

Soho primary school, in the heart of London, managed to raise £150,000 from an art auction last year, to which Damien Hirst and Gavin Turk donated items, to save it from large budget cuts.

But John Peckham, the head of Bramhall High in Stockport, was less successful. Only 10 per cent of his school's 1,100 families agreed to covenant up to £10 a month to stave off a £80,000 budget deficit, although a further 230 families did give a one-off £10 donation.

Ministers argue that they have put more money into school funding since Labour came into power in 1997. Spending per pupil has risen 25 per cent, from £2,810 in 1997/8 to £3,600 this financial year.

But changes to the school funding system, to spread resources more evenly between the shire counties and urban areas, coupled with rises in national insurance and pension contributions and performance-related pay rises for teachers, meant that the majority of schools claimed they had less money in their budgets this year.

Figures show that a total of 60 per cent of secondary schools and 56 per cent of primaries claimed that they had smaller budgets.

Mrs Morrissey said: "Years ago it would have raised eyebrows if parents were told they should raise money to pay for the essentials - like books and teachers' salaries. Now they just accept it. We really need a government audit or an independent investigation to find out what the cost of a free state education is to parents."

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, has promised that every school will receive a minimum per-pupil funding increase in its budget next year to coverthe cost of inflation.

The fund-raiser: From fêtes and discos to 'GIft Aid'

For the past couple of years Marion Williams has been struggling to help her children's school raise funds to become one of the Government's new specialist technology schools. She is one of many parents for whom school fund-raising has become an almost full-time occupation.

"We set ourselves a target of raising £4,000, but managed to get £5,000," said Ms Williams, whose two sons - David, 18, and Michael, 16 - attend St John Payne Roman Catholic school in Chelmsford, Essex. "It has been through the very standard ways of school fetes, summer runs and discos," she said. "There was even a barn dance, although I didn't go to that."

Ms Williams has been involved both as a parent governor and an active member of the school's parent-teacher association for several years now, and is also the Essex representative of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.

Like many of her colleagues in the organisation, she believes there has been a vast increase in the amount of funding parents have to provide for their schools, and would like to see more state funding to plug the gaps.

One of the biggest growth areas has been in asking parents to covenant a certain sum each year to their school, or asking for a voluntary "gift aid" for the school.

"I can't think of any school - primary or secondary - that isn't doing it," she said. "It's a far more efficient way of raising money from the school's point of view, so you'd be a fool as a head not to try it.

"Some people raise questions and find it a funny way to raise money, but it can be put across as a 'non-effort' way of raising funds. You don't have to get up out of your seat or leave your home to go disco dancing.

"Also, again from the school's point of view, some people covenant money to it and forget to stop it when they stop having a connection with the school."

Some of the schools offer cash prizes from a regular draw to those parents who contribute. "It won't be much," she said. "It helps to increase interest in it."