Free Schools but not Free Education

The report from The Children’s Commission on Poverty saying that the cost of basics, such as uniforms, school trips, materials and computer access can amount to £800 per child each year in state schools raises fundamental questions about what should be paid for by the State in terms of schooling.

I have long been aware of schools identifying specific textbooks and expecting pupils to have access to them and also in some cases in the past even expecting parents to donate to a fund for the school. Over the years these practices seem to have been growing as local democratic control has been eroded by successive central governments of all political persuasions. The Pupil Premium and free school meals for infants are at least a step in recognising there is a balance that needs restoring and these pupils with extra funding should not be asked to pay for items that are part of the basic life of the school.

Of course, different schools have always had access to different fund-raising abilities. When I worked in Haringey, at the start of my career, schools at the Highgate end of the borough made many more times profit at their summer fete than did schools at the Tottenham end of the borough.  Indeed, one school always seemed to be able to pull in a TV personality that guaranteed good attendance regardless of the weather.

I do think schools should be compelled to publish on their web site what they charge for each year. Where schools have reserves above the generally accepted norms then they must explain to parents why they are not providing the items they charge for from school funds. Perhaps someone might like to complain to the Secretary of State that a school is acting unreasonably by not spending its own money on a basic item.

Taking a cut of uniform sales through suppliers puts up the cost to parents as does having uniforms that cannot be easily bought from high street retailers, perhaps because the blazer is an unusual colour or has piping around the edges. Whether or not these are devices designed to exclude certain children from a particular schools, especially once the cost of sports kit has been added to the basic uniform cost, they do create a burden on less well off parents that should be prevented in state-funded schools.

The issue of internet connections at home has been one that has raised concerns ever since IT became so important in homework. Schools need to monitor whether this is a problem and follow best practice in ensuring all pupils can use the internet to complete homework tasks regardless of where they live. This is especially true for less well off families in rural areas where access to broadband may be partial or even non-excitant at reasonable costs.

I hope Lib Dem ministers will take up the cause outlined in the Commission’s report and not shelter behind the notion of schools being free to decide their own policies. I would also like to hear from the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches a clear statement that their schools will be expected to provide an education that doesn’t cause hardship to some families and exclude pupils from some important activities. Free should mean free in all respects and not free, but only if you can afford it.


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