Please sir, may I have some more

I know a lot of people don’t like motivational quotes or aphorisms (cue twitter argument about aphorisms not being the same as motivational quotes) but they can sometimes be helpful in helping to centre oneself in what they really believe. My favourite for many years has been one that was meant as a joke. It was in a book of Woody Allan sketches and jokes:-

“There is nothing wrong with having principles you would die for, but you should keep those kind of commitments to a bare minimum.”

Like everybody I have principles. One of them is that education should be free at the point of delivery for all children. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest everyone in the country believes that, I’d go so far as to say that it is, to use the current parlance, “the settled will of the people.”

I believe this for two reasons. Firstly the intrinsic, altruistic value of education. Being more educated is better than being less educated and I think we all want that for all our children. Then there’s the extrinsic, selfish value. The evidence showing that the better educated a population is the faster its GDP grows. I want this because then there is more likelihood there will be money around to pay my pension. I seriously think this is at risk at them moment. We have reached a bit of a tipping point.

At the moment I’d say there are very few people directly involved with education who do not recognise the financial pressures schools are under. From the DfE, who think the problem can be solved with a bit of efficiency saving, to people who actually work in schools who are aware that unless something substantial changes the sky is going to fall in for some of them.

So there is that clarity over the existence of a problem.

This post is a series of musings about one of the possible solutions.

Many (most?, all?) schools collect money from parents. I’m not talking about where they are paying for trips, or music lessons, say, I’m talking about where they ask for donations. Or ask for voluntary contributions to some materials dependent departments. I’m not judging any school that does this. As a governor of a school that does all these things I’m hardly in a position to.

But I am conflicted. Particularly when it comes to finding ways to increase this income.

As a nation we have come to the conclusion education should be compulsory and should be provided free of charge (notwithstanding that the various Education Acts allow for a miniscule amount of charging). This is funded out of taxation. There is no hypothecated “education tax”. You pay if you have 10 kids and 30 grand children and you pay if you are the Roman Catholic Bishop of Anywhere. No-one is exempt.

But in many schools now there is a pressure to increase the amount of money raised from parents. I believe this is wrong but sticking to this principle risks that being a “nose cutting off” issue.

There is now clear pressure on the government around the issue of school funding. That there are cuts is now clearly understood by the public, and importantly by the media. This is beginning to create some pressure for change. This might not materialise in a way that generates huge increases for schools but I suspect at the very least the idea of a Fair Funding Formula that takes real money away from any school is dead in the water. So this is one of the reasons I’m against pushing for even greater parental contribution – it reduces the pressure on government to properly fund schools. This is my first reason for being against trying to increase parental donations.

The second reason I’m against it is that it creates social pressures on school selection. There are schools that have been very successful in collecting funds from parents, often by monthly donations. There are some local to me. Everyone knows which ones they are. The impact of this to create a form of social selection – parents who can’t afford the expected monthly direct debit don’t even apply for their children to go to those schools.

Against this there are the arguments to increase income from parents. How many children in the school would be adversely affected if the school has to reduce the number of teachers it employs? This is not a moot point. Consider a school with 1,300 students. This probably means somewhere in the region of 1,000 sets of parents. If that school could persuade each of the parents to donate £100 per year then that’s an additional £100,000 per annum in income. Three teachers. 1.5% of total income. And the argument can be very seductive.

Which leads into the other argument often heard in favour of greater amounts of donation – “Who can’t afford £100 a year?”, or “That’s less that £2 a week.” It’s at this point that we start hearing comparisons to MacDonalds, packets of cigarettes and statements about the amount of child benefit being claimed. The reality is that whilst generally speaking £100 isn’t a lot of money, for some families it really is. And for those where it really is a lot of money, it really, really is a lot of money. Not just in terms of the amount but in the sense its yet another call on their limited resources.

I agree that many of these arguments are personal. They are based on individual values. The reason I tend towards the “Let’s not put any further pressure on parents” is not because I believe my values are good and those of others are bad, its simply that they are my values and I’ve heard no good arguments that counteract the two reasons I outlined above. No one has been able to show me that increasing pressure for parental contributions has no effect on social selection. And I doubt anyone would ever be able to persuade even themselves that increasing parental contributions would lead to fewer government cuts to education funding.

No school will die if it asks for more money from its parents, but there is a real risk that in saving the finances of the school you find that what you’ve saved it’s not the same school you started with.

In the end each school, through its governing body and leadership team, has to take whichever path it can best square with the ethos of the school. So if you decide that your school should push your parents even harder for donations then I will be at the very back of the queue of people lining up to judge you.