Free schooling a thing of the past

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The Independent Online
State education is no longer always free. The jumble sale and the summer fair, which used to provide the icing on the school cake, are now providing the staple fare.

In the last three years, the money raised by parents towards school books and equipment has more than doubled. In 1992, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations estimated that around pounds 55m was raised each year through parents' efforts. Last year they reckoned that the figure had reached pounds 110m.

As the squeeze on school funding has intensified, parents have turned to fund-raising not just to provide extra library books and computers but to build new toilet blocks and to pay for teachers. Many schools now have to ask parents for contributions towards essential equipment. The principle that fund-raising should be for non-essential purposes has been largely abandoned.

Hagley Middle School is not the first to resort to parental contributions to fund teachers. Last year parents at a primary school near Northampton were told they must pay pounds 1 a week for each of their children or see a teacher made redundant. At Welford and Sulby village school, parents were asked to make voluntary contributions towards the cost of lunch-time supervision. As early as 1992, two schools announced that they were levying parents to pay teachers. St Paul's school in Dorking, Surrey, asked for a pounds 30 levy and Avenue primary school in Sutton, Surrey, pounds 100.

Funding teachers remains highly controversial. Parents and governors are resigned to paying for books, furniture, mini-buses and computers but most are still reluctant to commit themselves to supporting a teacher. In part this is a wish to avoid recurrent spending in uncertain times: some teachers paid for in this way have been made redundant after a year.

It is also an objection to paying for items which most schools believe should be supplied centrally. Governors argue that too much fund-raising will reinforce the divisions between schools with affluent parents and those in poor areas. They argue that it introduces fee-paying by the back door.

Some schools are employing professional fund-raisers to bring in anything from pounds 50,000 to pounds 500,000. One comprehensive in Lancashire raised pounds 155,000 towards a sports hall. Parents were asked to make covenants to the school.

Ministers have not condoned parental fund-raising for teachers but have made plain their wish to encourage schools to attract money from the private sector.

Figures released this week by the EU show that Britain spends a lower percentage of its national wealth on education than any other European state.