Leading Article:Schooling becomes a lottery

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Imagine the dilemma faced by the parents of children at Welford and Sulby Endowed School in Northampton. The primary school is, as we revealed yesterday, so short of cash that the headteacher has asked parents to contribute £1 a child per week. Otherwise, he says, a teacher will be sacked. Of course the parents will pay up. They will dig deep to give their kids a chance and save a teacher. How could they begrudge the price of a lottery ticket?

Many people might regard this event as harmless enough, even as an encouraging sign. Schools are poorly funded, taxpayers are unwilling to pay more, so why not tap the goodwill of local people? Surely, one might argue, this Northampton school provides a fine example of community action, of people banding together and improving their lot themselves, rather than expecting an already overburdened state to provide the answers. How very modern, how very Blairist.

There's much truth in this. But let's not be fooled. This school has been driven into taking desperate measures because the funding authorities have failed it. Welford and Sulby primary has scrimped and saved yet still finds it impossible to balance the books and offer adequate facilities. Its solution is not illegal: the contributions it seeks are voluntary. But the parents are being morally blackmailed. How could they refuse with a clear conscience? Most important of all, the levy breaches a fundamental principle underpinning Britain's state education system, namely that schooling should be free.

There is a long tradition of parents collecting money for school activities, from buses and computers to books and trips. But paying for teachers is a qualitatively different matter. It goes to the very heart of the principle of free public education, which is intrinsic to British society and our sense of fair play. Inevitably, some people will choose to pay school fees in the private sector: liberalism demands that they should be allowed to do so. But the principle of free state education is that every child in the public system should have a broadly equal opportunity within it.

Introducing fees into the state system by the back door would allow richer parents to secure a better deal than their poorer counterparts. This injustice is the great evil of public education in the United States. Schools there are funded by districts which are so small that they vary hugely in their tax bases and hence the quality of the schooling on offer. Rich districts have good schools, poor ones have bad education.

This inequality is beginning to be mirrored in this country, even though education funding comes largely from a national pool. Thanks to fundraising, state schools in wealthy areas are already at an advantage over those in less affluent neighbourhoods. Research shows that some primary schools raise as much in donations as the local authority provides for books and equipment. But there is at least the pretence at fair play in the availability of teachers. The Northampton initiative, were it to become commonplace, would put an end even to that level of equal opportunity.

The sum of £1 a week per child may not seem to be a great deal of money. But for parents on income support, with several children, even this fee represents a considerable sacrifice. And it is probably only a matter of time before it will rise. It is easy to imagine a time when parents are interviewed by state schools in a subtle attempt to discern whether they are likely to be generous in providing donations.

Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, should make it clear that the behaviour of Welford and Sulby Endowed School is unacceptable, and should act to prevent others arm-twisting parents into funding teachers. But that will not be enough. The Welford and Sulby case is symptomatic of a system that is no longer funded realistically. We need Mrs Shephard - and the other political parties - to explain how this shortfall should be met. The Liberal Democrats, pledging a 1p in the pound income tax rise earmarked for education, have made a solid commitment. In the forthcoming council elections, parents should grill Labour and Tory politicians over what they would do to keep Britain's schools as free as possible.