Some parent-teacher associations raise huge amounts for school funds. Is it fair?

The class of eight-year-olds at Low Port school in Linlithgow are engrossed in the shapes on their interactive computer screen. They are touching frames to colour different fractions. This is a maths lesson, but it could be a game. The children at Low Port start using Smart Boards in primary one and continue throughout their time at the school. "The
internet is your oyster, explains Liz Greig, a teacher in primary 4. "I can go on to Google and get a map, say, and display it for the class. When we are reading, they can all follow the text on the screen. It's much easier to keep them focused."

The school spent several hundred pounds on these popular maths games last year and the pupil council is pushing for more. Where does the money come from? "We approach the trust fund," explains the principal teacher, Anne Cook.

Low Port looks a bit like Hogwarts, set as it is behind an impressive late Victorian facade, and could easily be an independent prep school. In fact, it is an ordinary state primary – though its parents and teachers do work magic of sorts.

The £32,000 project of installing the Smart Boards was met by a parent teacher association trust that is funded largely through parental direct debit. The tens of thousands of pounds it spends yearly are directed towards projects chosen by the head, the PTA treasurer and chair, and the pupil council. Their next project is a structured play area for the older children. Last year, the PTA refurbished and redecorated the non-fiction
library and fitted management software. The books are gifted separately by individual families and have plaques inside giving their names.

Parental contributions

Low Port is in the centre of this ancient town, a 20-minute train ride from Edinburgh. Glancing at an estate agent’s brochure for an 1820 town house, its proximity to this sought-after primary is mentioned in the first paragraph (offers over £245,000 – an attractive price for refugees from Edinburgh or Glasgow’s leafy suburbs).

Around one-fifth of parents pay into the school fund, either by direct debit or once a term. The fund is eligible to claim 28p in the £1 in gift aid for each donation. Sylvia Forshaw, mother of two children at the school and the PTA chair, says: “This isn’t a hard sell. We have a lot of working parents who don’t have the time to do jumble sales and coffee
mornings, so it may be easier for them to contribute in this way.

“We try to make sure that the projects are decided well in advance so people know what they are contributing to, and that they happen as quickly as possible so that parents see the benefits coming though. Some of the parents who contributed to the Smart Boards had children in their last year at the school but we managed to get the boards in the classroom in time for those children to benefit. The council told us it would be at least seven years before they would have installed them.”

At another well supported school, North Ealing primary, west London, parents have raised £230,000 over three years to ensure that new school buildings had state-of-the-art facilities, including Smart Boards and an IT suite, again largely through monthly direct debits from parents.

Rob Wirszycz, chairman of the North Ealing board of governors, says:”Parents wouldn’t have done it for bricks and mortar. The government should pay for that. But we wanted to make it really top spec, with things such as interactive Smart Boards throughout.”

Parents were asked to make a voluntary, regular commitment of a sum that suited them and around a fifth agreed to do so. “We took the view that every little helps, whether it was £1 a month or £10 a month. It gradually accrues. We also had a lot of events, each with a financial target, for instance a school disco would raise £1,000.

He is pleased with the results. “There are a lot of private schools around here but their facilities are frankly pretty crummy compared with what we’ve got now.”

Throughout the UK there are schools that raise tens of thousands of pounds a year, providing their schools with IT suites, swimming pools and well-stocked libraries – while others raise nothing.

Increasingly in middle-class areas the direct debit and the well-targeted trust fund application are replacing the cake-baking and coffee mornings once associated with the PTA.

In his best-selling book Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt reported that while having an intact family or not watching TV do not correlate with success at school, parental involvement in the PTA has a strong correlation with high achievement. Against this background, the government is trying to encourage more parental involvement in schools.

But some are concerned that PTAs in affluent areas may be deepening the social divisions between schools and that their fundraising should be capped.

Walter Humes, professor of education at the University of Aberdeen, says he is alarmed at the growing use of methods such as direct debits and trust funds, a legal vehicle for fundraising that allows the collection of gift aid. “This does raise issues of equality of opportunity within the school system,” he says. “If the trusts raise substantial sums, this will
ultimately increase gaps between schools in terms of measures of success such as exam results, and that will increase disparity.”

Such gaps will undermine efforts to narrow the inequality of opportunity that the government has pledged to reduce, he says. The government “should monitor this and look at the possibility of limiting it”, says Humes.

Tony Green, an education lecturer at the University of London’s Institute of Education, says the social divisions between schools in the state sector appear to be increasing. “Having an affluent parent body is likely to make fundraising easier. There is also intellectual capital available.” Parents running after-school clubs is an example of this, and having the expertise to set up trust funds and the ability to access legal and accounting advice are another, he says.

“There is research from America which shows that the amount of resources available to spend on each child has a direct effect on results. There is a self-perpetuating cycle as the better a school’s reputation is, the more attractive it becomes to affluent parents.”

Social injustice?

Complex mechanisms such as the house-price effect and social networks could then exclude children from poorer backgrounds, he says. “The information about how much the PTA is contributing should be collected and made public so that it is known what resources schools actually have. There is a case for saying: this is contributing to social injustice, so
something should be done about it. That could be by capping the amount the PTA can raise, but the picture needs to be made clearer first.”

Fiona Hyslop, the Scottish National Party MSP and education spokeswoman, who represents the constituency where Low Port is situated, is in favour of what the school is doing. “You can’t cap people’s aspirations to better their child’s school,” she says.

In Scotland there are no figures available showing how much is raised by each school, but in England the amount of money raised went up by almost 10% last year to £73m, according to the National Confederation of PTAs (NCPTA).

One in six PTAs raises more than £10,000 a year, while 1.5% of PTAs are now raising upwards of £20,000 a year against an average of £6,000. A handful are donating around £30,000 to their schools each year, according to the NCPTA.

The NCPTA gives awards to active groups each year. Recent recipients include Cuddington Croft primary in Cheam, Surrey, whose PTA raised£60,000 over four years to install a swimming pool.

Hampton Hill junior school in Middlesex raised £25,000 with an auction of celebrity memorabilia from the Dalai Lama, Mick Jagger and Darcey Bussell on eBay and has provided the school with an 18-terminal ICT suite and a sensory garden.

Sandgate school in Cumbria, a special needs school with a small number of pupils, raised £160,000 through fundraising, sponsorship and grant applications over two years to transform a grey tarmac play area. They now have a climbing frame specially designed for wheelchair users, along with a wheelchair-accessible roundabout, swings, a boat, a 4×4 and a multi-use sports court. They have also managed to turn a piece of wasteland into a
wildlife and sensory garden with pond, pagoda, seating areas and willow tunnel.

South Morningside primary school in Edinburgh, with another high-earning PTA, spends around £11,000 a year on school extras. It commits £1,000 a year to buying books for the library, amounting to perhaps 1,500 extra books over a decade.

At the other end of the scale is Castlemilk High in Glasgow, where only 4% of students go on to higher education.

The school has no PTA, but its headteacher, Brian McAlinden, says: “If the parents around here wanted one, they would have one. I don’t think we are disadvantaged as a result of not having one.” McAlinden says parents were consulted over issues such as school uniforms, and staff helped students to fundraise for things such as foreign trips.

Laura Warren, of the NCPTA, believes PTAs can improve schools without relying on wealthy parents. “We have PTAs in less affluent areas that do very well,” she says. “In that situation they might look beyond the school gates and raise money from businesses and charities.”

Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says: “If year after year some schools get money that others don’t, they will end up with better facilities. But I don’t think you can stop people buying things for their own children’s school. But we don’t believe throwing money at the school is what a PTA should be about. We’d never endorse things such as trust funds and direct debits.”

The Guardian
January 17th 2006