Chris Keates: The cost of sending children to school

A FUNDAMENTAL principle of our great public services is that they are free at the point of use. Unfortunately that principle, in relation to public education, has been contaminated by the policies of the coalition Government.

One of the coalition’s early acts was to sweep aside important guidance and provisions on charging parents for school activities. Shortly afterwards, under the 2011 Education Act, schools were then empowered to levy charges for subjects which were previously free, to introduce school uniforms costing hundreds of pounds and to charge exorbitant prices for school meals, trips and equipment.

The result has been that year-on-year parents have been faced with the rising cost of education. The shameful reality is that now access to important educational opportunities is increasingly based on parents’ ability to pay.

We should all be deeply concerned about a return to the days when children were isolated, excluded and stigmatised because they were poor.

In research carried out by the NASUWT over the last three years, parents have expressed their deep concerns about the rising cost of sending their children to school.

Of major concern to many parents is the cost of school uniform, particularly in schools which impose restrictions on where uniforms can be purchased.

Placing requirements on parents to use one particular retailer or to purchase uniform only through the school is often more expensive, preventing parents from taking advantage of the cheaper options offered by many supermarket and department store chains.

Two-thirds of parents report that they had to purchase uniform from a particular supplier and nearly half of parents (48 per cent) said the same for PE kit and equipment.

There has also been a steady increase in the costs of providing equipment for lessons. Almost a quarter of parents are now paying in excess of £76 per annum.

A growing number of parents report deep concerns about feeling pressurised into purchasing electronic equipment such as ipads, often through the school, requiring them to enter into monthly payment arrangements.

Since the coalition removed the cap on the amount which could be charged for school meals, the average cost to families has increased. Over half (51 per cent) are now paying between £2 and £4, compared to 2013, when the average cost per pupil for meals was between £1 and £3.

Financial donations to schools are seen as an increasing burden by parents. Almost two-thirds of parents who made financial donations to their child’s school paid over £21 per year. The number donating in excess of £51 per year has also increased. These are ‘voluntary’ contributions that parents often say they feel obliged to pay.

The issue raised most frequently by the majority of parents is the cost of trips and educational visits. Well over a quarter of parents now spend over £200 per year per child and increasing numbers are unable to afford to pay for their children to participate at all.

Parents are saying they are being forced to pay for educational visits which are an essential part of the curriculum.

There is now more and more evidence that young people are being forced to reject the subject options they would prefer because their parents would be unable to afford the books, equipment or field trips necessary for the course.

It is unacceptable that educational experiences that promote opportunity and achievement are being limited by the ability to pay.

The concerns of parents in the NASUWT’s survey were confirmed recently in a poll conducted by independent polling company ComRes, in which almost three-quarters of parents agreed that there should be much stronger regulation over how much schools are allowed to charge for the services they provide to pupils.

Three-quarters of teachers now report regularly experiencing children coming to school so hungry they lack energy and are unable to concentrate.

Some 82 per cent of teachers report that the children they teach do not have the proper footwear and clothing and teachers now are regularly giving more children money, food, clothes and equipment at their own expense.

It is unacceptable that teachers and schools are being left to pick up the pieces of this coalition’s failed education, social and economic policies.

• Chris Keates is general secretary of the NASUWT, the Teachers’ Union.