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Forget free, let's talk fees;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

A head's request for parental contributions has drawn attention away from the need to consider future funding arrangements for all schools, says Brian Caldwell

'Not all schools can offer state-of-the-art music, just as all hospitals cannot offer facilities for heart transplants' THE LONDON Oratory seeks a pound;30 monthly "covenant" from parents to support programmes at the level of its grant-maintained days. But few if any counterparts have indicated they will follow suit.

Yet in Australia, the debate on parent contributions is at full flood.

So-called "voluntary contributions" are an expectation for virtually every state school in the country. At the prestigious Melbourne high school for boys, a monthly contribution of about pound;36 is expected, which covers camps, materials and sports, but not teaching.

Most non-state schools in Australia would be in the aided sector in England. In many instances, especially Catholic schools, government grants cover most of the operating costs, with fees set at a level that reflects the capacity of communities to pay. There are exemptions for parents who cannot pay, with schools sometimes requiring a contribution "in kind" such as specified hours of service work.

There is a challenge in both countries to the societal value that education in state schools should be free. The pressure is coming from rising expectations, escalating costs, and increasing choice and competition.

The commitment to free and compulsory education was made in the 19th century when schools consisted of large classes; few professional staff; blackboards and slates - and little equipment. There was considerable community commitment to the local school. Public expectations could be met to the full without parental contribution.

But in the late 20th century, expectations are outstripping the capacity or willingness of the community to meet the cost of education and health through tax.

A framework for resolving the situation could be as follows: First, there should be acceptance of the notion that all schools should provide a world class education. A consensus is emerging on the characteristics: all pupils should be literate and numerate and should acquire a capacity for lifelong learning, leading to successful and satisfying work in a "knowledge society" and the global economy of the future. There should be a commitment from government to meet the cost.

Full costs should also be met from the public purse for schools that cater for special educational needs or that offer particular specialisations such as the arts. Only a few schools should focus on such programmes.

They would be the educational counterpart to the specialist hospital: not all schools can offer state-of-the-art music programmes, just as all hospitals cannot offer facilities for heart transplants.

The key is to establish and then cost a series of whole-school designs for these different kinds of settings. Interest in such designs is growing in several nations and there is now a sturdy methodology for costing the various elements.

In the United States, for example, Wyoming used a panel of educationists to determine and cost the ingredients of a successful school, following an approach recommended by Vanderbilt University's James W Guthrie. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation recently published a study of such approaches in several nations, including Australia, England and Wales.

Questions about curriculum and approaches to learning have been just as important as questions about costs and sources of funds. There is a strong case for cutting the curriculum by as much as a half, with a higher probability of achieving desired outcomes for a world-class school.

Is there a place in this framework for parental contribution? A small fee from every parent, determined on a school-by-school basis, should be permitted, but the "cash or in kind" option is necessary to ensure that all parents have the capacity to contribute.

This framework applies to learning in school. But what are the implications of learning networks along the lines proposed by Tom Bentley, director of the independent think-tank Demos, in his book Learning Beyond the Classroom?

These involve "shifting the way we see education from a separate sector of society to a culture that infuses every sector". The implications for funding are profound, according to Bentley, including "releasing ourselves from over dependence on taxation and public spending ... filtered through an expensive and slow-moving bureaucratic system".

Finance for a world-class system of state schools thus calls for new approaches to costing and accounting that will accommodate full support from the public purse; permit a small fee from parents, either in cash or in kind; and recognise sources of support and funds from other agencies.

An exclusive focus on The London Oratory case is a distraction from what ought to be the biggest game in town.

Brian J Caldwell is professor and dean of education at the University of Melbourne. Themes in this article are included in his paper on 'Education: A Third Way' to be presented at a conference on A Third Way for Australia in Melbourne on November 20.

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