Yesterday I received my budget for the 2014-15 school year. I run a large department with over 260 GCSE and 100 A Level historians as well as a good number studying government and politics. Now, thanks to a range of issues, including falling rolls, and the general squeeze on education at the moment, my budget for next year has been reduced by nearly 30% from last year's figures. With this kind of cash, I worked out that I would barley be able to cover the costs of my photocopying (which has been growing exponentially as our dwindling stocks textbooks, most dating back to the mid 1990s or earlier disappear into the ether) and materials. After some reflection, I was left puzzling quite how I was going to make ends meet.
The second trigger for my thoughts was reading the following tweet on the DfE Twitter feed, in which one academy head was quoted as saying:
So this all got me to thinking about how we might adopt a similar approach to funding departments in schools, as well as larger tech projects.
GOLD - This will be our top package and will include the following items for every student: A brand new history textbook for to take home and keep; three works of history from our fantastic choice of modern historical authors - for younger students this may include some historical fiction or Horrible Histories books; and last but not least, a voucher for entry to an English Heritage property. All of this for a contribution of only £6.50 a month per student (payable by direct debit and deductible for tax)
SILVER - This will be the standard package for most students. Every child who opts into this scheme will get a brand new textbook to take home and keep as well as a classic work of history from the range described above. This package will be priced at £4 a month (less than the cost of a couple of Lattes)
BRONZE - This will be the lowest package and will be for those students who do not want to opt in fully to the scheme. However, to give parity and so they don't feel stigmatised students will opt in and receive a textbook to loan during school hours for no extra charge per month (we may have to remove those textbooks where there are drawings of genitalia on every portrait).
I may not always agree with the comprehensive education system we have in this country, but I have always been proud that it has been a system which is effectively free to students at the point of delivery. Indeed that principle is enshrined in law. iPad schemes like the ones in the linked schools, and hundreds of others, play fast and loose with the definitions of costs and donations to get around this issue. The whole thing is aided by companies and "charities" like the e-learning foundation who form part of this burgeoning market. Between them they are slowly turning our free education system into one which charges parents as a default.
Firstly, the already mentioned problem of access. By law, state education in this country should be free for all students. Go back 20 years or more and there was genuine debate over whether we could even ask students to buy their own pens and pencils, or if schools had a duty to supply them. The charging of parents for key materials contravenes this ruling and opens the door to all sorts of abuse. Notably it create a multi-tiered system in which those than can afford to pay get the best deal. In most iPad cases, those who cannot or will not pay are given loan iPads which cannot go home. These kinds of divisions simply should not exist in state education, or at least, not for those things which students require for their learning.
Secondly, parents are not all behind these schemes. A range of local press stories (see also HERE and HERE) have revealed anger as parents feel they are railroaded into purchases they do not want. Some have expressed concern that they are being encouraged to sign credit agreements, whilst others feel they should have a choice over whether or not their child owns an very expensive, internet connected device. Sadly, the national newspapers do not seem to have picked up on this scandal so the whole issue is going under-reported.
Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, schemes such as this mask the enormous problem of a lack of government funding in education. For every leafy lane school which can ask its parents for money, there are at least three times as many schools which have to rely on whatever money the government chooses to devolve to local authorities. This of course has been made even worse as academies and free schools siphon money away from the LAs who are forced to plug the gaps left in library services and SEN provision. We have therefore arrived at a situation where "flagship academies" are able to fund all their educational projects (misguided or not) through extra funding and parental contribution, whilst the vast majority have to make do and mend. This is not only unfair, but it also fragments the voice of state education. Many of these new academies should be leading the drive to demand more funding for all, but instead they are tapping their own local resources and grabbing all the cash they can whilst the rest of the state sector is left to collapse into ruin. Now the cuts to education are really starting to bite, the state sector needs to stick together and demand better, and indeed fairer funding for schools all over the UK.
So next time the DfE tweet about how Academies are making the most of their fiscal freedoms, maybe we should be asking why they are not sharing their good fortune with the rest of us! All of this brings me back to Roger Waters' DSOM lyrics , "I'm all right Jack keep your hands off my stack...Don't give me that do goody good bullshit. I'm in the hi-fidelity first class traveling set." Maybe this should be the new motto for Gove's flagship academies!