School cuts: ‘Children now raise money for their own education’

Posted on: 2018-08-14 06:15:00

The village of Benenden in Kent has a green nearly as big as a football pitch. At one end stands a charming stone church. On the western edge is a picturesque mid-19th century building out of which, at 9.15am on a Wednesday, a stream of children dash, wearing their blue and white PE kit. This is Benenden primary, a state school in one of the wealthiest areas of the country: just up the road, the famous Benenden School charges parents £12,650 a term.

The little state school, though, with its cramped and crumbling building, and an intake of only 162, has sub-standard facilities and is constantly strapped for cash. If governors hadn’t slashed the budget at Easter by substantially reducing teaching assistant hours and asking the headteacher, Gill Knox, to reduce her working hours to four days a week, rising fixed costs would have taken the school into deficit. Even schools in well-heeled areas – this one has just 8% of pupils eligible for the pupil premium – are facing financial crisis.

In this climate, parent and staff fundraising has become critical. Some devote hours of staff time applying for grants, mostly available only to those with high percentages of children on the pupil premium. One school in Kent managed to raise £213,078 last year.

At Benenden, the school’s PTA raised £9,000 through fetes, quizzes, family camping trips and barbecues. “It’s basically propping up the budget,” says Knox. “Books, science and maths equipment, counters, metre sticks, charts with fractions on, batteries for when we do electricity and forces. Things we need but can’t afford.”

"Without bidding for money, we wouldn't do music - and that's a core statutory requirement" -Steve Davies, headteacher

Fundraising has become an essential part of school life as government funding has failed to keep up with basic school needs. Heads have faced a real terms cut of 8% in per pupil funding since 2010, according to the latest analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Carianne Hamilton, a Benenden PTA committee member, grimaces. “People have been asked for so much they’re getting fed up,” she says. Knox agrees. “I do think there is a bit of resentment in an area where a lot of people are paying 40% tax that they are being asked to send in gluesticks.”

New research by Dr Ali Body and Dr Eddy Hogg of Canterbury Christ Church University into the finances of 306 Kent primary schools shows that 94% of heads feel under pressure to increase fundraising, up from 66% in 2016. “Schools have moved into survival mode,” says Body. “In 2016 there were more schools using fundraising as a choice; now, they see it as a necessity.” The headteachers she interviewed were furious about their plight. “Our backs are against the wall,” said one. Another said: “I am very angry that this is the focus of schools, to keep heads above water and not on providing excellent education.”

Body’s research found that 43% of Kent primaries are at least partially reliant on fundraising income to deliver elements of the core curriculum, considerably up from 28% two years ago. Income raised by PTAs in the county has risen from £36 a pupil per year to £45, and staff fundraising has risen by a quarter, to £51 a pupil per year. “We’re now seeing children fundraise for their own education,” says Body.

A few schools are sprinting ahead, however. Just 1% of Kent state primaries scoop up 10% of all donated income. The highest amount raised by a school per child soared from £250 to £595 – in a school that raised £170,456 overall.

To achieve these sorts of sums, Body observes, some schools are adopting Westminster Sixth Form College’s tactics and hiring staff with specific fundraising duties.

But voluntary action inevitably benefits the wealthiest rather than the less well off. “Relying on it to deliver a fundamental human right is hugely problematic,” says Body. “We’re seeing more volunteers stepping in to support some of our most vulnerable children. But charity is haphazard and unsustainable. If this becomes core to our school system, then we will increase inequality in education.”

An hour’s drive east of Benenden is the Isle of Sheppey, where inequality becomes frighteningly visible. At West Minster primary, situated in the middle of a council estate by the car port in Sheerness, half of pupils are eligible for the pupil premium. “A good 30% are only just above that level,” its headteacher, Steve Davies, says.

Davies is pulling in serious money, spending 50% to 60% of his time researching and applying for grants and awards from the EU, the Lottery and various foundations.

“My nickname in [a previous school] in Lewisham was Del Boy because I always knew where there was a pound note,” he grins. If he succeeds in one current bid for an £80,000 grant – he is hopeful – the school’s total take will be around £150,000 this year, up from zero when he arrived. Body’s analysis shows that last year, West Minster primary raised £28 per pupil. Benenden raised nearly five times that, at £125 a pupil.

Davies is pragmatic. “I’m just going to keep battering away at it, because if budgets keep shrinking, if you don’t keep going [with fundraising] you’ll be in deficit.”

One grant of £23,500 Davies has recently raised will cover half the cost of a musician, which has saved him from having to cut music as a subject. “Without bidding for money, we wouldn’t be able to do music – and that’s a core statutory requirement,” he says.

Does Davies ever wonder if his sterling fundraising efforts mean he’s letting the government off the hook – allowing it to provide insufficient funding? “I’d like to think not,” he says. But here his positive attitude switches to anger. “The whole system is unfair and inequitable.”

Over at Benenden, Knox this year spent about two hours a week of her four days raising £5,000 for her school. “The bottom line is that [without it] we would have struggled to make ends meet. I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
Carianne Hamilton agrees. “It’s a sad state of affairs,” she says. “I’ve had discussions with other parents asking if we didn’t do this, would it get to the stage where government officials would start noticing, but I don’t think they would.”

Source: The Guardian

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