Published in the Brentwood Gazette – 21st November 2013
It’s been a tough few years financially and, while some locally may be in denial, Brentwood’s parents, and our schools, are not immune to the effects of austerity.
While I recognise the pressure on schools to bridge their funding gap, I am concerned that the economic circumstances of parents are sometimes not given due consideration.
Having canvassed opinion via social media and in person some common themes emerged. For secondary school parents, the cost of uniform seems the greatest concern.
While most seem to be happy to support a smart uniform policy, minimising the amount of items that have to be bought via one supplier was the main recommendation. There was also concern that some items were overpriced, given their quality, where suppliers had a monopoly.
Primary schools operate on much smaller budgets which are largely defined by their pupil numbers. Capital projects or non-essential maintenance are therefore more difficult to finance, so fund raising activities appear to be given greater prominence.
Brentwood has many active and imaginative Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) supporting our schools but it is not always clear what that money is used for. Equally, it is not always recognised that the majority of money raised comes directly from parents and that their capacity to contribute is limited.
I am particularly concerned when fund raising events put children in a difficult position with their peers. Kids do compare the amount of spending money they are given, for an in-school sale as an example, and highlighting a family’s economic circumstances in this way puts further pressure on parents.
There was a furore at one of our children’s schools a couple of years ago when a second sponsored event was run in the same school year. On this occasion it was specifically intended to provide a new fence to surround an astroturf pitch.
Complaints that this was non-essential, and that parents had already contributed enough during the school year, met with what I considered an inappropriate reaction from the headteacher of the time.
A letter was sent to parents stating that contributions from past parents had provided current facilities and there was an expectation that this would continue. This did not acknowledge the recession or the added pressures on parents that their predecessors would not have had.
I am pleased to report that this stance appears to be rare now amongst our primaries. As an example, I was appraised of the approach taken by Holly Trees Primary by one of their parents who is also part of the PTA.
Laurie Edmonds tweeted, “we ask parents, children and staff for their suggestions of what we should raise money for”. The PTA then discuss suggestions with the Headteacher and a project is selected. This is intended to be inclusive and transparent and, to me, seems like a policy that would increase the chances of success.
Of course, in an ideal world, there would be no need to ask for further financial contributions on top of the tax that pays for our schools. That is a subject for another day but in the meantime I am happy to champion the approach of Holly Trees and remind all schools and PTAs to be as sensitive as they can be to the economic circumstances of the families they serve.