Best things in life are not always free

25th April 2003 at 01:00
How can governors charge pupils for activities without discriminating against low-income families? asks Jane Martin

GOVERNORS often find themselves preoccupied with making ends meet when balancing the budget. Charging pupils can then become an issue, resulting in vociferous debate since it goes to the heart of providing a decent education for all.

Governors must have a clear policy on charging parents and pupils. The principle must be upheld that, during the school day, all children have full and free access to a broad and balanced curriculum. The only exception to this rule is for musical instrument tuition for individuals or small groups of pupils, and only then if it is not an essential part of the national curriculum or a public examination syllabus.

As schools increasingly offer additional activities during or outside the school day, any activity which is an essential part of the curriculum or a public examination syllabus must be provided free of charge - although, where it is felt appropriate, voluntary contributions can be invited.

But even here care must be taken to ensure that pupils are not excluded or pressure put on poorer parents .

The governing body can make a charge for any extra activities during or after the main school day which are genuinely non-essential - for example, after-school clubs - and therefore optional. The charging policy should set out clearly how charges are calculated - based on actual costs incurred divided by the number of pupils participating.

It is good practice for governing bodies to make provision for cases of hardship, perhaps from fundraising, and the policy should also make it clear which parents could qualify for such support - for example, those in receipt of income support or family credit.

Whatever the harsh realities of making ends meet, governors should always be mindful of the impact of a charging policy which could be divisive or discriminatory. In particular, careful consideration is needed regarding residential visits which may be optional, but nevertheless take pupils out of school. Due attention needs to be paid to how pupils who do not attend are accommodated. Charges for school minibus travel should also be handled in such a way that pupils who cannot afford to pay are not excluded from beneficial activities.

When governors are considering any additional, optional activities which enhance the curriculum, the issue of who should provide them needs to be discussed in terms of "best value" - the best quality provision for the best price - as well as the issue of who the activities are provided for and which pupils will benefit most.

However carefully prepared, a charging policy may actually only further disadvantage less well-off families and pupils who may be in greatest need.

For information on charging policies and other governing body policies see "Policies - a Guide for School Governors and Headteachers", Michele Robbins and Martin Baxter, Adamson Books. On charging policies, also see chapter 18 of "A Guide to the Law for School Governors"

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