Michael Gove says he wants to make state schools indistinguishable from the independents. Some state schools are already attempting to blur the lines by putting pressure on parents to make regular payments to a 'top-up scheme'.
My son and daughter attend state schools in Bath (both of which have converted to academy status) and I recently received letters from them asking me to set up a direct debit to this effect. Here is an extract from the letter from my son's school, Beechen Cliff:
'We feel that the opportunities provided for the pupils at Beechen Cliff, both academic and in the broader life of the school are on a par with any school, both independent and state. Despite the bleak governmental funding future we want to keep this and where possible improve upon it. This will only be possible with help and support. Independent school fees are normally over £10,000 a year per pupil. At Beechen Cliff education is free but, if parents are willing to give a fraction of that money, we could achieve so much more.'
'We are asking ALL families for a voluntary contribution of £30, £20 or £10 per month to the new Top-up Scheme. We believe that this isn't a great sum to contribute towards a child's education. Of course we appreciate that some parents do not have the resources to contribute. Thankfully there are some generous parents who are already contributing significantly. If you are already supporting then we are of course most grateful but please review your contribution.'
This concerns me greatly for the following reasons:
1. It introduces the idea of parents contributing financially to state schools on a regular basis with the aim of it becoming the norm. This undermines our state school system in much the same way that changes to the NHS are chipping away at the idea of a free health service.
2. It is putting financial and moral pressure on parents at a time when many are struggling.
3. It ignores the fact that we already pay for state schooling through our taxes.
Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington School, has recently proposed that wealthier parents should pay for state education (they already do - through taxation!). We are in danger of losing the principle of education being free at the point of delivery. We are also at risk of developing a two-tier state education system, with plenty of parent-funded resources for schools in affluent areas, very little for others.
I emailed the head of Beechen Cliff to ask what he planned to spend the money from parents on and why converting to academy status hadn't resulted in better funding (one of the reasons he gave for converting). He claimed they needed extra resources to come from parents to compensate for reductions in funding per pupil (particularly at post-16 level). He also said that the top-up scheme is used by most schools and had useful tax advantages.
I'd be really interested to know if his claim that most schools are using top-up schemes is correct (I've googled them and nothing has come up). I am pretty angry that he draws comparisons between his school and the independents and expects parents to respond to that. There are many, many reasons for choosing a state school over an independent; as a parent, my biggest concern is the quality of teaching and I haven't seen any evidence that the teaching is better in Bath's numerous independent schools. His - and our - time would be better spent campaigning for increased state funding than supporting schemes that erode the principle of free education and lead to greater inequality.
I would really welcome your thoughts on this.