The issue - Spending decisions

22nd October 2010 at 01:00
If parents help to raise cash for school projects, it's wise to give them a say in how it is spent. Ignore their views at your peril

Installing a playground treat sounds uncontroversial enough. But if parents' hard-earned cash is being used to pay for it, there is a risk that things can turn ugly.

At Thomas Willingale School in Loughton, Essex, the head spent about #163;30,000 on granite boulders for the playground to help pupils learn about mountains. The school had raised the cash in fundraising events, but some parents were reported to be unhappy that they had no say in how the money had been spent.

Such confrontations can be avoided if a thorough dialogue with all stakeholders takes place before decisions are made, says Carl Ward, director of innovation and development at Sutherland Business and Enterprise College in Telford, Shropshire.

"Parents should be involved in decisions over how money raised is allocated," he says. At Sutherland, the school makes parents aware of fundraising projects through parents' evenings, open evenings, letters home and monthly bulletins.

Governors and trustees also play a role in monitoring the college's spending. "This mechanism offers accountability to parents over the way spending decisions are taken," Mr Ward adds.

A safer bet would be to let the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) take the lead on fundraising decisions, says Caroline Cochrane, senior researcher at The Key, a support service for school leaders.

"This type of decision should never be the head's alone," she says. "Most schools have a PTA, which is set up as a charity in order to enable it to raise funds for the school without incurring tax."

Heads and senior managers should be consulted about where donated funds are spent, but under charity law the final decision rests with PTA committee members, Ms Cochrane says. In the absence of a PTA, the governing body is responsible for signing off the allocation of funds, she adds.

At Sutherland, big spending decisions always involve the PTA, plus input from governors. If parents' ideas clash with those of school management - for example, a vending machine selling junk food - further consultation usually irons out disagreement.

"If parents' wishes do not reflect the direction of the school we would seek a dialogue," says Mr Ward. "Such cases are rare and normally only affect a minority because parents are generally involved from the start and are very well informed."

If the parents and head still cannot agree, the school may have to clarify its values and beliefs to reinforce its position.

This must be done sensitively, Mr Ward insists. It can take a school years to build a strong relationship with parents, but it can all be undone over a single disagreement.

Co-operation is the buzz word at Reddish Vale Technology College in Stockport. Debates about fundraising always involve pupils, staff, parents, and sometimes the wider community.

"The democratic process ensures these tensions are greatly reduced," says Phil Arnold, director of college improvement. What results is something that all parties can benefit from, he says.

That may sound time-consuming. A quick decision by the head is tempting compared with seemingly endless meetings with parents, but bad publicity or ill-feeling between the school and parent body will take far longer to patch up.

Better to put the hours in early to avoid spending time on damage limitation later.

Fundraising do's and don'ts

- Allow the PTA to lead. If no parent-teacher group is available, give this role to the governing body.

- Involve all stakeholders in discussions before decisions are made.

- If disagreements occur, clarify the school's values to parents.

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