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The end of free education?

Our Director of SEN, Bernadette John, ponders a troubling new trend.

We’ve got used to the school newsletter imploring cash contributions: The requests for donations for various school projects; the pleas to buy something undesirable where profits will go to the school; the ever more frequent non-uniform days with their £2 levy.

But last weekend’s had whole new tone. ‘The context of cuts to Sixth Form funding, withdrawal of funding for specialisms and cuts to capital grants, has seen the school lose, in real terms, over £650,000 annually compared with before the Coalition Government came to power in 2010. Another £75,000 (an Educational Services Grant) will disappear next September and 2016-20 will see a further 7% fall in funding per pupil according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies,’ it said.

If parents do not plug the gap, the letter told us, the breadth of the school’s curriculum, and extra-curricular activities, are at risk.

Parents up and down the country are receiving similarly harsh missives. Those in West Sussex have been told that state schools may have to resort to a four day week in order to manage with reduced funds. Other schools are cutting the choice of subjects available at GCSE and A level, with arts and creative subjects particularly vulnerable as they do not form part of the English Baccalaureate (used as a measure of a school’s success), as well as the foreign languages which attract smaller numbers.

Some schools are saying that pupils will now only be able to study three subjects in sixth form (instead of starting with four in year 12); no more chances to try a new subject, or to hone your choices for year 13 according to your best grade prospects. There’s to be more teaching by non-subject specialists; bigger classes; less support for additional needs.

In this context it seems to me that the grammar school debate, which has dominated education policy proposals under the new administration, is nothing more than an almighty smokescreen: Get everyone worked up about a small sector of our education system, and they might miss the fact that educational opportunity has been slashed right across the board (the letter above, incidentally, comes from a grammar school head).

And with no end to the financial squeeze in sight, former government advisor Sir Andrew Carter (now chief executive of an education trust) is proposing that all schools should be able to charge families (except those qualifying for the Pupil Premium) £500 per year to fund additional facilities.

We may need imaginative measures to get us out of the mess we are in, but this proposal seems to miss two points: First that £500 will be an enormous, and unaffordable, sum to many families who do not qualify for Pupil Premium. And second, that it is one thing to pay fees when they are buying you the very great advantages of an independent school – the small classes, the recording studios worthy of BBC broadcasts, the sports facilities so good they are used by our Olympians in training. It’s quite another when this sum is demanded simply so that there are enough text books to go round, and that you child can study the A level they need for their chosen degree course.

We may be witnessing an end to free education for all. How will that serve the just-about-managing?



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