Teachers warn of two-tier system for state schools

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The Independent Online
SCHOOL HEADS and governors demanded urgent government action yesterday to avoid a two-tier system of state education in Britain.

After the disclosure that the London Oratory School is asking parents, including Tony Blair, up to pay pounds 45 a month to cover a budget deficit, the Secondary Heads Association and the National Governors' Council (NGC) issued a joint statement showing the depth of frustration about education funding.

On the eve of the Labour Party Conference, they demanded government guidelines on how much schools should ask for in "voluntary" parental contributions, and called for a debate on the place of private-sector funding in education. They urged the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to use Treasury funds instead of relying on parental and business subsidy of state education.

At some schools, such as the London Oratory, cash from parents or business sponsorship maintains standards, the statement said. But in other schools, children are without books, and teachers are losing their jobs.

Pat Petch, who chairs the NGC, said it was not unusual for schools with wealthy parents to ask for contributions. "We are already very close to a two-tier system of state education," she said. "Those schools where parents can put their hands in their pockets are going to keep their staff, and the rest are not."

Mr Blair refused to comment yesterday on the request from the London Oratory, a Roman Catholic state school in west London, which was in the vanguard of opting out from local authority control during the Conservative government. "That's my business, the same as it is everyone else's," he said in a BBC interview.

But he stated that headteachers were perfectly entitled to send letters to parents asking for voluntary contributions."What heads are not entitled to do," he said, "is to put pressure on people in any way, shape or form that means they end up paying for their children's education."

Asked whether he would like to see fewer grammar schools by the time Labour left office, Mr Blair said: "I just don't think it's the issue for us. It's not the thing that motivates me greatly. There are a very small number of grammar schools left. It's up to parents to vote whether to keep them. The programmes we are now putting in place are the programmes that will deliver over time for people."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the London Oratory clearly suggested to parents that their money was needed to maintain staffing levels. "That is moral pressure, as near as damn it," he said. The Government had to introduce a national funding formula to tackle the "lottery" which determined school budgets, he added.

The head of the London Oratory, John McIntosh, wrote to parents to ask them to contribute extra funds to cover a pounds 250,000 deficit in the school's budget, which he blamed directly on government policy. He asked them to covenant at least pounds 30 a month for a first child and pounds 15 for a second. The contributions would be voluntary and no pupil would be excluded if parents refused to pay.

But he added that if the school failed to raise enough money, it might have to seek commercial sponsorship.