Counting the cost of charging for school basics

1st April 2016 at 00:00
As cash-strapped schools impose fees for photocopying and activities, critics warn of impact on poorer pupils

Families are “routinely” being asked to pay for day-to-day school costs such as photocopying, a parents’ organisation has claimed, as a council warned headteachers against imposing the charges.

Scottish Borders Council is writing to school leaders to remind them that pupils should not be charged for photocopying and told TESS that it was investigating the issue.

Teaching unions raised the problem of schools demanding fees to cover the basics at a meeting with Michelle Strong, the council’s head of schools, last month.

Right to a free education

Anecdotal evidence suggests that charging may be widespread across Scotland, even though the law states that local authorities must provide all educational materials “free of charge for all pupils”.

Angela Cumming, the Scottish Borders association secretary for the EIS teaching union, said: “Textbooks are thin on the ground and senior pupils get a lot of photocopied notes. But they should not be paying for that – education is meant to be funded by the state.”

The charges were indicative of the tight budgets that schools are forced to grapple with, said Jim Thewliss, president of secondary headteachers’ body School Leaders Scotland. However, charging for photocopying was “far from commonplace”, he stressed.

“Youngsters are entitled to have their education funded by the per capita allocated to the school,” he added. “They should not be charged for access to the curriculum.”

However, parents did frequently pay for resources, claimed Eileen Prior, director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC). Research has shown that disadvantaged pupils dropped subjects with a cost attached, knowing that their families could not afford to pay, she said.

“Parents pay routinely for normal business, including photocopying and resources – that’s the reality,” Ms Prior added. “And we know that students in secondary schools will manage their course choices according to what they know their families can and can’t afford.

“We are damaging the education of our young people through these costs.”

Limiting subject choice

The Cost of the School Day project in Glasgow, which looked at extra charges in schools, found that pupils were being turned off subjects like music, home economics, and art and design because of the financial implications.

The researchers carried out interviews, workshops and surveys with pupils and staff in six Glasgow schools. One S4 pupil commented that he had dropped home economics because the 50p cost associated with the subject had to come out of his lunch money.

Costs could stigmatise pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and damage their sense of belonging at school, warned Sara Spencer, the project manager. If the Scottish government wanted to close the attainment gap, the basic costs associated with attending school had to be addressed, she said.

“We need to address questions like ‘Can my child get to school?’ and ‘Are they miserable while they are there because they are not able to do the same things as other children?’,” Ms Spencer argued. “[All this] before we get tied up with the literacy and numeracy strategies we are going to introduce.”

Earlier this year, local authorities warned that the budget settlement they had received from the Scottish government – which they claimed represented a cut of £350 million – would lead to “totally unacceptable cuts” and was a threat to communities.

@TESScotland

How schools can reduce pressure on family budgets

Ensure everything is as affordable as possible, including school uniform and trips.

Lend resources – such as stationery, uniform and equipment for clubs – without comment.

Cover costs and provide subsidies and sibling discounts where possible.

Make sure fundraising activities don’t always require families to contribute – for example, supermarket bag packing.

Look at the school year with affordability in mind and space out the events and activities.

Help families to claim the support that they are entitled to. All Scottish councils are now obliged to offer a clothing grant (in Glasgow it is worth £420 per child per year). Scottish senior pupils from low-income homes might be entitled to Education Maintenance Allowance worth more than £1,000 per year.

Source: The Cost of the School Day, Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and Glasgow City Council, bit.ly/SchoolCostReport

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