22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers your questions.

If a school organises a ski trip during term time, can it include in the charge to pupils the cost of supply cover to replace the staff on the trip? If so, should parents be warned in advance? If they were not told, can they later claim a refund?

If the trip is wholly or mainly in term-time, and really is organised by the school itself, no charge at all may be made to parents, except for the cost of board and lodging. Parents may be invited to make voluntary contributions and a suitable sum suggested, but it must be made clear that the contributions are voluntary and that no child will be excluded because of inability to pay.

Not all schools emphasise the voluntary nature of contributions strongly enough - some get round the problem by arranging for a travel firm to offer the trip directly to pupils at a price determined by the organisers. In this case the school doesn't come into it at all, although parents have to apply for leave of absence for their children, just as if it were a private holiday.

On the assumption that the trip is being organised by the school, you could argue that the cost of cover is directly related to the trip, and that therefore it is not unreasonable for the school to try to recoup it from voluntary contributions.

You could also argue that the school's regular supply budget be used, which means that pupils who don't go are robbed of education funds to subsidise those who do. On the other hand, the cost of supply over a two-week period must run into thousands of pounds, and would make the total cost to parents very heavy.

A good school should tell parents the basis of the suggested voluntary contribution when offering the trip - and I would take a poor view of a school which only told them after the event that it included an element for supply cover.

It is high time that your governors discussed the whole question. You are legally obliged to have a charging policy. It is now time to review that and, at the same time, decide whether you are happy about parents being asked to pay for supply cover and what to do about those who want a refund.

Your question revives concerns I have about trips in term time which are not directly curriculum-related. The law clearly intended to establish that these are part of schools' learning programmes from which no pupil should be excluded by reason of inability to pay. There has been enormous pressure to reaffirm the principle of free education in the face of widespread charging for such things as field trips. At the same time, the law recognises the realities of life by allowing voluntary contributions.

Many think this was a fudge, but running ski trips and other expensive activities in term-time makes nonsense of the principle that no child should be excluded.

If schools advertised this properly, the cost to those who could make contributions would be prohibitive.The trips continue because they suppress the demand for free places through failing to spell out the law.

What's more, there is always an element of hidden subsidy to those who take part by those who don't, if not financially then in loss of regular teachers and general disturbance. Your question on supply cover illuminates this. Governors should ask whether the law really intended what is now happening in school time to be so unquestioningly accepted.

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