We hear regularly from parent groups about how they have to pay for school lets for their fundraising events or meetings. This is despite their activities often benefiting the school community financially, as well as socially.
We decided to conduct a short survey in December to seek views and experiences of parent groups that book school lets. Our findings demonstrated that, across many Scottish local authorities, parent groups are charged for school lets with no recognition that parents and families are volunteering – often saving local authorities and schools money, and enhancing children’s school lives in the process.
It is a bitter irony that, at a time when parental and family engagement in children’s school lives is at the top of the Scottish government’s policy agenda, parent groups are now effectively being shut out of schools. They are having to look elsewhere in their communities for cheaper premises to hold their meetings and events. When a parent council – which is there to represent all parents – is going out of school for meetings, something is very wrong.
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At Connect, we think it is unacceptable. Local authorities operate schools on behalf of local residents; school buildings are a community asset and are often part of the social fabric and community cohesion of an area. Now they are becoming a cash cow and a resource to generate funds for local authorities’ central coffers.
We understand councils are cash-strapped, but the income generated from lets to parent groups is a tiny amount in relative terms, yet it can have such a massive impact if the activity stops.
Responses to our survey came from 27 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Parent groups in nearly half of our responses said they face charges for meetings all the time or sometimes. Nearly two-thirds have to pay for lets for social events all the time or sometimes, while over half must pay for lets for fundraising some or all of the time.
It is clear that some local authorities are cynically generating income through school-let charges for parent councils and parent-teacher associations. However, others do not make charges when events and activities are clearly for the benefit of the school community. Parent groups told us that some local authorities have complicated, unclear booking processes that leave parent groups unsure of whether their event can go ahead. Yet, others manage to have easy-to-use, straightforward systems. Do local authorities never confer or share experiences when they procure booking systems?
Costs vary, ranging from £19 to £200. Apart from generating cash while fundraising and building home-school links, we’ve been told of frankly exploitative practices that are severely testing parental goodwill. For example, one parent-staff association organises an annual family gardening day to clear up and tidy the school grounds on a Saturday. It is now being charged for a school let, because the janitor has to unlock the school. The only way to avoid this kind of unlocking charge is for the headteacher to come in and do the unlocking, so this affects school staff, too.
Without families volunteering to help, these clear-up tasks would have to be paid for by the school or council, or they would not be undertaken at all, potentially creating risks and hazards.
We are calling on local authorities and the Scottish government to:
- Work together to ensure parent groups are supported in what they do for their schools – they make a huge financial and social contribution to their schools, so don’t take it for granted.
- Make sure parental engagement and involvement are properly supported in practical ways, eg, parents/parent groups are supported to access, and feel welcome in, school buildings.
- Make sure parent groups are not being exploited when they are supporting the school community – this is cynical and harms parents’ trust in the school and local authority.
- Demonstrate respect and appreciation for parent groups for their invaluable contribution.
- Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk: recognise that partnership working with parents requires a commitment from local authorities, too.
- Recognise the importance of janitors and school staff in enabling school access.
- Ensure that there are school-let booking systems that work for parent groups in terms of availability, let confirmation and payment methods.
Parents and families are equal partners in children’s learning and their school lives; they must be respected. Charging parent groups for their invaluable contributions to school communities entirely contradicts this, generating bad feeling and ultimately damaging the trust relationships between families, schools and local authorities.
The pernicious practice of setting unaffordable charges, which are paid for out of fundraising efforts, must stop.
The inevitable consequence of a failure to address this issue is that parent groups will simply stop organising social and fundraising activities, and even meetings. All of which, of course, are for the benefit of school communities.
Eileen Prior is executive director of Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council)