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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sally Weale Education correspondent

Schools urge parents to help plug funding gaps as costs soar

Secondary school children walk towards school entrance
The request for parental donations is not new, but the urgency is. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Days into the new academic year, headteachers have raised the alarm about a looming funding crisis in schools, with some parents urged to make donations and parent-teacher associations on standby to plug funding gaps for classroom essentials.

As energy bills and wage costs rise, school leaders say money from PTA fundraising efforts will be needed to cover core costs rather than “nice to have” extras. In affluent areas where PTAs are able to raise huge sums, it could even be used to save jobs and help pay bills.

Elsewhere, schools say PTAs will struggle to raise funds this winter as the cost of living crisis hits households. Simon Kidwell, the principal of Hartford Manor primary school in Cheshire, said his school would not be asking parents for additional donations. “The PTA are very, very aware that parents don’t have the same money available.”

The crisis raises the prospect of a widening gulf between schools with affluent families still able to donate money to enhance their child’s education, and those in disadvantaged areas. One finance director at a small trust in the south-east said: “I’m going to the PTA AGM in a couple of weeks’ time. Basically, the message will be: as much money as you can raise needs to come to the school. Not for specific projects … just so that we can keep our core services going.”

Simon Kidwell in a classroom
Headteacher Simon Kidwell says he is aware ‘parents don’t have the same money available’. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Staff at the trust have been removing lightbulbs, turning down the heating and working out which trips to cut in order to save money, but in the face of spiralling energy costs it is little more than tinkering. “This is an existential threat,” said the finance director, who asked that he and his trust remain anonymous.

The electricity bill of one school in the trust has jumped from £122,279 a year to £522,986 as part of a new two-year deal. The hike in gas prices has been even more dramatic, up from £32,783 last year to £252,926, a 671% increase.

“We are a well-run trust so we have decent reserves and we can probably ride this out for a year and see what the government does,” said the director. “If they don’t do anything, our reserves will disappear and we’ll be making significant redundancies. To be honest, you might as well give up and go home. Schools are going to stop functioning.”

A letter has gone out to parents warning that costs are rising at an alarming rate and will have “a detrimental impact” on the quality of education provided, urging them to contact MPs and to consider making a monthly £15 donation or a suggested £180 contribution. The request for parental donations is not new – many schools have run donation schemes for years – but the urgency is.

The prime minister, Liz Truss, has promised a six-month energy guarantee for the public sector, but few details have been released and trust and school leaders say short-term help will not be enough.

“We don’t tend to ask parents for a lot of money,” said Dr Paul Gosling, the headteacher at Exeter Road Community primary school in Exmouth, Devon, where 45% of children are eligible for free school meals. The PTFA (parents, teachers and friends association) usually raises about £5,000 each year, which goes on library books and helping children from lower-income families to take part in residential trips and other visits.

Gosling, who is president of the National Association of Head Teachers, is expecting his energy bills to double, which will take the school into a £10,000 deficit. “If anything happens now we are in a very precarious state. If a boiler goes down or something needs repairing, we’ve got nothing in the tank,” he said.

The head of a secondary school in the home counties, whose parents’ association (PA) raises £10,000-£15,000 each year, said: “Ten years ago we would use this money for ‘extras’, items identifiably above and beyond classroom provision – kit for sports clubs, stage lighting etc.

“In recent years we have had to subsume their contributions into items that ought to be funded through government income streams – replacing 10-year-old classroom computers, acquiring equipment for science experiments and buying textbooks for lessons.

“However, increasingly, the gap between our income and our needs makes the PA contribution – however welcome – almost irrelevant. The unfunded aspect of teacher pay is costing us £70,000 this year, the equivalent support staff figure is about £30,000, utilities are increasing by about £200,000.

“Voluntary funds may once have enhanced the pupil experience. PA contributions may then have served to plug the gaps during the decade of austerity, but now anything they provide is nowhere near the level needed to compensate for the reckless and systematic underfunding of schools.”

Kerry-Jane Packman, an executive director at Parentkind, which is the PTA membership association, said: “Schools have been struggling for a long time but the demand on PTAs is going to get higher.”

In 2019, 3% of PTAs surveyed said their funds had been spent on either staff salaries or training. More than two-thirds (68%) spent funds on educational materials in 2019, including textbooks, and 17% paid for school renovation projects.

While a small number of PTAs are able to raise £100,000 a year or more, the average PTA will raise £9,000. PTA fundraising has also been devastated by the pandemic. In 2021, PTAs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland raised £60.8m – about half what they raised pre-pandemic.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The sums involved are enormous and well beyond the means of PTAs. That is really a matter for the government to address – something which it needs to do with a sense of urgency.

“Where we may well see PTAs stepping in, however, is with providing help to pupils whose families are struggling because of the cost of living crisis. For example, they could help to buy clothes, books and other provisions needed by young people who cannot afford these costs.”

The Department for Education has previously said the government recognised that schools were facing increased costs, but that budgets will rise by £7bn by 2024-25, compared with 2021-22, including by £4bn in this financial year alone to help schools to meet wider cost pressures such as energy prices and staff salaries.

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