It would appear that even in his private life, David Cameron has been not too far away from the headlines. The PM has apparently handed himself in hot water over his choice of school for his child Nancy – who will be starting secondary school in September at Grey Coat Hospital school.
Bet you can’t guess the reason… Nope, it’s because the school has asked parents for money when giving out school places. It’s not quite bribery we’re talking here – it’s to contribute to the School Fund that allows Sixth Formers to take part in various activities, including ‘team-building activities’ during Induction Week – a trip to Cambridge is on the menu. In this case, only parents of Year 12s are being asked to contribute the princely sum of £120, but the school may well have breached admission rules in the process.
The letter asking for the money, penned by Deputy Head Elizabeth Stevenson, states that “school budgets are squeezed” and “paying School Fund is an important way of showing us that you are serious about taking up a place with us in Year 12.”
Clearly, not an acceptable way of doing things from the school in question – contributing to a fund that should be entirely voluntary should really not be any indication whatsoever of how committed you are to your children’s education. Besides the fact one could rant all day about that and how the school is being irresponsible, I think it does open up the debate again on how schools are funded and what sort of exclusions exist nowadays.
Currently, the rules on charging parents says that schools cannot charge parents or ask for voluntary contributions/deposits as part of the admissions process – even if bits and pieces are refundable. On the wider subject of costs, parents aren’t really allowed to be charged for things that should be part of the education anyhow – textbooks are a no-no for instance. The actual practice is very confusing and often comes down to the language of the letters that schools choose to send home. I remember my school having a clever way of coercing parents out of their cash – we were told that kids wouldn’t be excluded from particular activities but events couldn’t take place if schools didn’t cover costs. Ultimately people paid up for fear of being stigmatised.
It would appear that the system is either flawed or schools seem willing to flout the code (though one has to point out the Grey Coat Hospital school has declined to comment) and so we really have to think if the current rules are sustainable in a climate of parental pressure, clever language, and schools complaining that they’re short of funds to provide their education. I would say probably not, so I sat down (voluntarily, you see) and thought of some potential solutions to the issue.
- Tighten up on schools – well the rules are there for a reason, after all. Do we take the approach that parents shouldn’t be put under so much pressure and really schools should be providing the education at the rate they’re offering. Clearly, there’s a difference between education and holiday-like activities, but I think we’re all wise enough to see the difference. On the flip-side, it’s a tad difficult to see how you can punish the rule-breakers… Fine them? Well I think that’s not only ironic but also counter-productive.
- Let them charge for activities – OK, perhaps not the healthiest for school/parent relations, but I guess it gets the job done. Then again, if the school is a state school I’d be wondering what the government funding was doing for schools anyway… And if I was at a fee-paying school I would be banging my head against the wall and wondering where the school fees were going. Not an easy balance to keep.
- Change the school funding system in general – Well, let’s be reasonable here. Schools have been known to waste finances in different areas, from prestige projects to paying out frivolous compensation bills for just about anything. Give schools more control over the essentials that they need, rather than what they want to look good with, and then the whole issue over voluntary contributions becomes somewhat less important. It shouldn’t be a case of parents paying for textbooks that form an inherent part of secondary education – save that for university level.
One thing that really won’t go away is the issue of testing commitment in parental interest and it really does annoy me that the best way the school could find was to ask for £120. Surely if it matters to you that much then why not interview them or work out some sort of event?
I must admit that it really isn’t a very easy thing to consider because there are social divisions and different economic backgrounds to remember – you can’t make everything compulsory otherwise there will be a risk of catching out the best able in society. Then again, there is a hole to clearly fill somewhere – otherwise we wouldn’t have schools asking for contributions – unless you take the view that schools seek to make a profit, but that would be cynical, right?
My solution is to tighten up on the funding and how schools spend massive grant money – stop the mindless specialism grants that lead to prestige projects for sport. My old school spent £2m on an AstroTurf field that is rarely used and I defy anyone to tell me that they’ve made the investment back. Think of all the less-fortunate who could have benefited from that money in the form of new books and learning opportunities! If schools had some sort of universal credit from the government for each pupil to ensure that equipment and trips and books were more-easily funded than ever.
Oh hang on, isn’t that broadly what the pupil premium does? Well yes, but badly. The government wants to make more education more accessible and easier – with less red tape. Why not start by ensuring that parents don’t have to front massive costs on top? Fund schools properly, there’s a thought.