Parental donations to school funds: what the law says

Parental contributions to UK schools
With increasing numbers of parents being asked to dip into their pockets to make up for UK school budget cuts, we take a look at what’s allowed, and what’s not.
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Parents have always been asked to contribute to certain elements of primary school life. From donating the odd pound or two on non-uniform days to paying for class trips, many of us are used to making small contributions.

But in recent years, a new pattern has emerged of schools asking for regular financial donations from parents to contribute not to day-to-day running costs.

A 2017 survey of school business leaders by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) found that 20% of schools had asked parents for voluntary contributions to mainstream activities in the previous 12 months – and it’s likely to have become more common since then, says Julia Hamden, Funding Specialist for the ASCL.

Research by Parentkind also shows that over 40% of parents have been asked to make regular financial contributions.

‘It’s a sign of the severity of the funding situation that schools are having to ask parents for help in this way,’ says Julia.

The law on making financial donations to schools

Schools have always been allowed to ask parents for voluntary contributions towards certain ‘optional extras’, such as school trips. However, legally, local authorities and governing bodies of state maintained schools and academies cannot charge for education that takes place in school hours.

‘We are clear that no parents are obliged to make donations to schools,’ says a Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson.

The Government specifies that schools ARE NOT ALLOWED to charge parents for:

  • Making an admission application for a child.
  • Education during school hours, including the supply of equipment such as books and materials.
  • Education provided outside school hours, if it’s part of the National Curriculum or part of a syllabus for a public exam that students are being prepared for at school (this mainly applies to secondary schools), or part of religious education (this mainly applies to faith schools).
  • Entry for a public exam that students are being prepared for at school (such as GCSEs and A levels; again, this is mostly applicable to secondary schools), including exam re-sits.

Schools and local authorities CAN make a charge for:

  • Materials, equipment or books, if the parent wishes the child to own them.
  • Music and vocal tuition, if it’s requested by the parent, such as individual instrument lessons that take place in school time.
  • Certain Early Years provision, such as pre-schools or Nursery classes – although all children aged three and four are entitled to 15 hours’ free provision per week in term-time, and some are entitled to 30 hours.
  • Certain ‘optional extras’ like breakfast and after-school clubs.

What can schools use voluntary contributions and donations for?

While – broadly speaking – schools are not allowed to charge for education and educational activities that take place during school hours, they are allowed to ask for voluntary contributions for the benefit of the school.

This most commonly applies to school trips and in-school activities run by external providers, such as art and drama workshops and forest school.

Activities can be cancelled if not enough parents contribute to cover the costs.

Increasingly, however, schools are asking for voluntary contributions towards essential school running costs, ranging from classroom materials like books, stationery and laptops to repairs to school buildings.

‘In theory, schools can request voluntary contributions towards any aspect of school life,’ says Julia Hamden. ‘They will generally spend them on resources and activities; clearly, it would be unsustainable to rely on this source of revenue to pay staff wages.’

Why are contributions needed?

It’s been widely reported that schools are under enormous financial pressure, with 91% saying they have had their per-pupil funding cut, according to School Cuts.

Even the DfE recognises the pressures, with a spokesperson saying, ‘While there is more money going into our schools than ever before, we do recognise the budgeting challenges schools face and that we are asking them to do more.’

‘School budgets are becoming increasingly stretched due to restrictions on real terms per-pupil funding, while costs are rising,’ explains Michael Barton, Advice Officer at the National Governance Association (NGA), which represents school governing bodies.

‘Governing boards are trying to protect the education offer to their pupils, but we have now reached the stage where 70% of respondents to the NGA’s annual survey in 2018 said they were unable to manage funding pressures without any adverse impact on the quality of education provided.

‘It’s not surprising that in this context, more schools are seeking financial contributions from parents.’

Julia Hamden of the ASCL agrees. ‘It is a sign of the severity of the funding situation that schools are having to ask parents for help in this way,’ she says.

‘Requesting voluntary contributions from parents is one way to make ends meet, however this is unlikely to be an option for schools in areas of high disadvantage where many parents cannot afford to contribute.’

Are contributions ever compulsory?

No: voluntary contributions are just that.

The law specifically prohibits maintained schools and academies from asking for any financial contributions or commitment from parents during the application and admissions process, meaning a child’s school place can never be dependent whether their parents can or will pay.

In the case of voluntary contributions being requested for activities like school trips and workshops, schools cannot exclude pupils based on their parents’ ability or willingness to pay, but activities can be cancelled if the costs aren’t covered.

‘It’s important that parents are not pressurised into making a contribution, or feeling stigmatised if they can’t,’ says Michael Barton. ‘Therefore, schools should avoid sending letters to parents and carers that imply that their contribution is compulsory or even expected.’

How do schools request contributions?

In many schools, voluntary contributions to specific activities like trips, talks and workshops are requested at the time of organisation, via a one-off payment direct to the school office or using an online payment system like School Gateway or ParentPay.

Regular voluntary contributions to school life, however, may be requested by direct debit or standing order, with many schools asking parents to commit to making a donation per month, term or school year.

More than ever, though, schools are turning to different ways of raising money through voluntary contributions.

A 2019 investigation by The Guardian found that schools are increasingly using crowdfunding, with 700 schools saying they use websites like JustGiving to ask for contributions, and 300 setting up Amazon wishlists.

Some schools have even resorted to asking parents to donate items such as exercise books and toilet paper.

What do parents think?

Unsurprisingly, parents’ views are mixed on the subject of making financial donations to schools.

In an article in The Times, parent Louise Mellor said she’d declined her daughter’s school’s request for regular contributions by direct debit, as she believes the Government will be less likely to give schools extra money if they think parents will make up the shortfall.

Mum Charlotte, who’s a member of a parent-teacher association (PTA) that raises about £35,000 per year for the school, agrees. ‘We’re careful not to pay for things that the council should cover; the basic necessities of hygiene and safety are off limits for us,’ she explains. ‘We don’t do an Amazon wish list for toilet paper or pencils, as we believe that sets a dangerous precedent.’

Other parents have no objection to schools asking for top-up funds.

‘My daughters’ school asks for regular donations. It’s voluntary, but there is an expectation that we’ll contribute,’ says mum Julia. ‘We donate as we can afford it, and I actually prefer paying a lump sum than constantly finding money for non-uniform days, fairs and fundraisers.’

Naomi also pays a donation of £10 per term per child, up to a maximum of £60 per year. ‘We’re in the fortunate position that making the contribution is okay, and totally support those who feel they can’t afford to,’ she explains. ‘But it rankles when some parents refuse to contribute because “education should be free”, but then drive their children to school in luxury cars.’

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to contribute voluntarily rests entirely with each family, according to their financial situation.

But with budgets increasingly squeezed, it’s likely that in the near future, more and more schools will need to appeal to parents for help covering the costs of educating their children.