School fees for a state education?

By Bernadette Meaden
March 25, 2017

With schools facing funding cuts, parents across the country are being asked to make a financial contribution to make up the shortfall. Some schools are already asking for up to £600.  The Executive Head of two schools in Northumberland told parents, “There is fundamentally not enough funding in the national pot to meet the school's needs and the situation is set to become much worse. The Trustees and I are extremely worried about the situation and its implications for our children.”

Jo Davies, a parent at one of the schools, said, “Parents have expressed everything from disbelief to utter horror. Most of us feel that if we start to support the school financially that it will become the norm, and give the government the idea they can cut funding even further.” Ms Davies may have a very good point. In fact, there may be some in the government who would see this as a desirable (perhaps intended?) outcome.

The idea of parents making a large financial contribution towards their children’s state education has been openly advocated by people on the right of politics for some time. Perhaps begging letters from schools should not be seen as an unfortunate side-effect of cuts to public spending, but as a sign that we are moving, slowly but steadily, towards the ‘small state’ model espoused by free-market libertarians.

In 2011, the influential free-market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) published ‘Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Small State’, in which it argued for minimal public spending and very low taxes. For the IEA, and Conservative politicians who agreed with its philosophy, austerity, far from being regrettable, was a golden opportunity to put many of their ideas into practice.

On education, a number of possible reforms were suggested, but “An even more fundamental reform would be to move back towards a system where all parents (except the very poor) made a financial contribution to schooling, as they did in the nineteenth century.” It continued, “If we charged parents around one quarter of the average cost of education (allowing for exemptions for the poorest and possibly for multiple children) this should reduce public spending by around £8.5 billion by 2015 and cost parents about £1,000 per annum (though more for older children).”

This did not become official Conservative policy – no doubt it was seen as politically impossible to sell to voters. But through budget cuts the government is indirectly bringing about a situation where parents are increasingly expected to pay for elements of a state education.

This will obviously put poorer areas and poorer children at a greater disadvantage.  And if it continues, we will reach a situation where the cost of state education falls not on the community as a whole, through general taxation, but on families who are considered the users of that service. Those who don’t have children, or whose children have left school, will be paying less of a contribution.

This may sound attractive to people who think they might gain, but it moves us further towards an atomised society, where people are unwilling to pay for public services they don’t currently use, or to contribute to the wellbeing of society as a whole. Paying to educate children, even if we don’t have children ourselves, is an investment in society from which we all benefit. If we lose that understanding, that common purpose, we will have lost something precious.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden





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