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Charging parents for state education will entrench inequalities

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Emily Tanner, Head of Children, Families & Work .

Voluntary contributions from parents to fund non-core activities have been touted as a solution to cuts in funding for schools. Emily Tanner considers what this means for how we define mainstream education and what the evidence suggests will be the outcome.

Young boy playing the violin

Concerns over school funding loomed large at The Academies Show in London this week as the education sector came together to debate the hottest topics. The gloom in the conference hall seemed to match the weather outside. Although the proposed National Funding Formula (NFF) looks set to address the peculiarities in the distribution of school funds, recent evidence from the IFS and the Education Policy Institute makes it clear that even under the NFF, all schools in the country face real term cuts in coming years, and half of schools will lose 6-11% per pupil. Sobering news, given that so many schools are already struggling.

So what are schools to do? One of the panellists, Sir Andrew Carter (a leading head teacher and chair of the initial teacher training review), voiced an idea that parents could be charged a ‘premium’ to help meet the shortfall. When he previously set out this idea, he explained that parents could be asked to pay for the activities that couldn’t be covered by government funds. Precedents for parents paying substantial sums in ‘voluntary contributions’ have already been set.

This proposal raises two fundamental related issues. First, which aspects of education should be considered optional add-ons? Who should decide? Would we end up relegating music, languages, sport – the ‘enrichment’ experiences that foster creativity, nurture skills and lead to happiness?

Secondly, the evidence is clear that inequalities in educational opportunity are exacerbated when parental payment is involved. Our research at NatCen analysing the Millennium Cohort Study demonstrated how participation in out of school activities varied markedly according to household income. Taking music as an example, at age 11, 26% of children above the poverty line had paid-for music lessons, compared with 4% of poor children. Similar evidence has been found for secondary schools.

Aside from after-school activities, schools with wealthier parents can raise more money through fundraising events, offer more frequent and ambitious school trips, can pay for author visits and swimming lessons. If the debate on charging parents needs to be had, let’s start by being honest about what parents already pay for and how this frames the opportunities available for children.

Follow me on Twitter at @tanner_e.

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