When parents pay
Parent-teacher associations all over England and Wales are heavily involved in paying for primary school essentials. Books for the classroom, computers, equipment for the gym, even maintenance of buildings are being financed with the proceeds of jumble sales, summer fetes, barbecues, discos and cake sales.
Far from reducing the PTA's role in fund-raising, local management of schools appears to have increased it. "We're in a scenario where the PTA is becoming a vital source of funding," said Margaret Morrissey, who chairs the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations. "This has been the case in secondary schools for some time but it is becoming far more evident in primaries too."
Both the NCPTA and the National Association of Head Teachers are to publish surveys of parental contributions shortly.
Many observers view the trend as deeply worrying, a form of back-door privatisation of what should be state-funded education. They argue that it favours schools in well-heeled areas and lets the Government off the hook. Energy that could be channelled into exposing a dearth of cash instead goes into drumming up that money.
Professor Sally Tomlinson, professor of educational policy at Goldsmith's College, London, said: "Parents are paying privately for their children's education.
"We don't know the level to which parents are funding education but it does seem to be on the increase. We have a state education system at primary level that is being partially funded by private donations from parents. That is happening by default and by stealth - the Government didn't get elected on this policy."
Not everyone sees the development as negative. Karen Wooley, a parent and governor of Woodcote primary school in Oxfordshire, argued that the PTA has been given added importance by having to find money to finance the basics. "In our school I have close contact with the PTA because I am a great believer in the partnership that should exist between parents, the PTA, the staff and governors.
"The way our education system has changed has meant that all these factions are pulling together. But there is a huge stress on that relationship now, which means it has to be nurtured."
A professional fund-raiser, Mrs Wooley knows all about money-raising techniques. When she was on the school's PTA she introduced the 100 Club, where 100 people buy monthly tickets and take part in a draw. That raised a lot of money for Woodcote school, she says. It all goes to buy classroom books.
Today, as chairman of the school's sites and buildings committee, she has found the school needs Pounds 6,000 for a new playground surface. She plans to ask the PTA to help with volunteers or an extra fund-raising campaign. "If we don't get the playground resurfaced, we can't allow the children to play on it," says Mrs Wooley.
There are precedents for the PTA helping with building maintenance. When a Portakabin needed painting, Mrs Wooley organised an army of helpers over the summer holidays to upgrade the building. It cost Pounds 250 compared to the Pounds 2,000 for a professional job.
PTAs in relatively well-heeled districts in Oxfordshire and Berkshire manage to raise annual sums of Pounds 4,000 and more for their primaries. The 229-pupil Shinfield infants is paying for its part-time teacher's assistant with Pounds 2,500 donated by friends of the school.
Headteacher Ann Nolan said she had qualms about asking the association for the money, but the parents had few. "They think it's a priority," said Paula Malone, a parent and governor at the school.
Parents of the 150-pupil Deddington primary school in north Oxfordshire also thought it was a priority to hire another teacher to cope with the number of reception-class children this term. And 13 new pupils started last month, making a reception class of 43.
"That's an impossible situation," said Mandy Harper, who chairs the PTA. "You can't possibly have a class of 43 four to six-year-olds."
So, the PTA's precious Pounds 4,000 annual income, which was being earmarked for upgrading the gym, was swallowed up to recruit a part-time teacher. "We had no alternative," said Mrs Harper.
Mrs Harper does not believe the PTA should have had to fund the additional teacher and mourns the change in the function of PTAs. "There should be sufficient funds for our children to have a good education," she said. "It would be nice to have extra money for library equipment . . . to be able to do things for fun rather than spend on all these functional things."
But she and other PTA activists are pleased about another recent development - the growing awareness of parents about what is going on in schools. Parents are becoming far more knowledgeable about the curriculum. PTAs are often the vehicle through which teachers can communicate educational changes to parents.
Not every school has a PTA, because some heads still feel threatened by them and some parents are too apathetic. But numbers are growing. Margaret Morrissey said: "We have moved into a new era in which parents understand what is going on and are going to work more closely with teachers."