A new system called ParentPay, being launched today, could create cashless schools. Capita education services, promoting the scheme, says it will cut workload, because staff will not have to collect the cash, and it will prevent money-related bullying.
Parents visit a website where they are shown a list of the activities and clubs available to their child, together with details of costs and deadlines for payments. They can pay using debit or credit cards and the money is sent directly into the school's bank account.
The scheme has been criticised by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, which believes it will prevent schools from helping low-income families.
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman, said: "We should not treat schools like Tesco's - where you get your credit card swiped. Sending children to school with money for a trip teaches them responsibility and in 30 years I've never heard of a child being bullied over it."
But the scheme has been praised by staff and parents at Park Hill junior school in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, which has been testing it since September.
Headteacher Rob Hodgkins said ParentPay had helped the school meet the requirements of the national workforce agreement. "At a stroke it overcomes the problem of children losing money, which was not uncommon, or of bringing the wrong money to school," he said.
"Parents paying by credit card have the option of spreading the cost of buying something like a school uniform over several months."
Families without credit cards or internet access can make payments by handing in cash at one of the PayPoint outlets located in more than 10,000 shops.
Capita is also developing plans to let parents pay via digital televisions or by phoning a call centre.
An average secondary school can expect to pay a pound;100 set-up fee to use ParentPay - then an annual fee of more than pound;700. Although Capita's pupil records programme Sims is extremely popular with schools, the company's track record with other electronic systems may not inspire headteachers with confidence.
The company administered the disasterous launch of the Criminal Records Bureau and the fraud-hit Individual Learning Account scheme and was fined pound;1 million for problems with its work establishing the London congestion charge.
The National Union of Teachers also criticised the system. John Bangs, head of education, said: "Parents are made to contribute a disgraceful amount to schools already and Capita is fuelling that commercialisation of education."