Latymer grammar school in north London hit the headlines recently withplans to ask parents to donate money to help with its “very significant financial shortfall”. There is an “urgency”, according to headteacher Maureen Cobbett, because of the cuts affecting the school.
But Latymer isn’t alone in taking this route. Schools – facing a funding crisiscreated by real term government cuts and rising costs – are increasingly trying out new ways to plug holes in budgets. Stephen Morales, chief executive of the National Association of School Business Management, says, “You can reduce the size of departments or not build the climbing frame – or you can see what else you can do.”
As well as asking parents and alumni for donations, schools are letting areas of their property such as sports halls or swimming pools, and running fundraising events. The Institute of Development Professionals in Education, a charity that helps schools to fundraise, has seen state school membership double over the past five years.
“The problem is that it’s no longer for the cherry on top of the cake,” says Keziah Featherstone, headteacher of Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol. “We’re now looking for funding to do basic fundamental things.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by some of the headteachers that Sally Bates, chair of the funding sub-committee at the National Association of Head Teachers, has spoken to. “School budgets are being hit,” she says. “I’ve spoken to heads in the West Midlands and everyone says it’s tough. Headteachers are telling me fundraising is no longer for the extras, but for the basics, and people just don’t have the money to give.”
While a number of schools are finding creative ways to get the cheques flowing in, many teaching staff argue that if schools’ financial strategies start to rely heavily on fundraising, this will lead to rivalry between schools and intensify hidden inequality.
Asking for alumni and parent donations is nothing new for independent schools, and it’s an activity that Future First has encouraged among state schools – but not all schools can. “We feel too ashamed to ask parents for regular donations,” says Nicky Gillhespy, school business manager at Cheam Fields Primary Academy. “Our parents are struggling and it could mean that children would go without in order to pay it.”
There’s only so much you can raise from the community, agrees Bates. “Many people are really struggling,” she says, “and we can’t keep asking them for money. They have a right and an expectation to a high-quality education and it’s not for schools to fundraise for that.”
Those in affluent areas may be able to raise more this way, says Featherstone. “There might be more people in those communities able to support a school with generous donations.” But this would only exaggerate differences, with Bates warning that “the divide between schools will get wider and wider”.
Another way schools are raising money is through traditional fundraising events. These need time and dedication from volunteers, says Jo Ballantine, director of development at The Royal Latin School, in Buckingham. “You’re asking parents to give up a lot of hours and a huge amount of energy towards the cause,” she says.
Gillhespy adds that it’s time that many parents don’t have. “Many aren’t available, because they’re trying to earn enough money to pay their bills,” she says. “And if we’re doing events and people can’t afford to pay we don’t exclude them, but that can also defeat the point.”
Competing for money
Then there’s bid writing to compete for grants. Josephine Garvin, business manager at Foresters Primary School in Wallington, Surrey, says that when bids are successful, the money can be a real help; Foresters was the first mainstream school to be given a Sunshine Coach, thanks to a successful bid.
However, bid writing is not without problems. “It’s getting more difficult because companies don’t have as much money,” she says. “It’s also time consuming and you have to put up with rejection.”
Gillhespy has grown frustrated with writing them. Last year, she applied for funding to improve her school’s swimming pool: “I spent hours completing the application form. We had a specialist helping, but that still [wasn’t successful].
“We’re your typically average school. And most grants are, quite rightly, aimed at those in disadvantaged areas that need extra money,” she says. “So I’ve lost my mojo. I’m a believer in fairness and it’s not fair that if someone is better at writing bids, or can pay someone else to write one, they get all the help. If there’s money there then everyone should have equal access. Or we end up fighting each other and that’s not what it should be about.”
Garvin also says middle ranking schools can suffer when it comes to fundraising. “Grammar schools can benefit from people wanting to give to future biochemists and high achievers. And we get help because we’re in an area of deprivation with special needs,” she says.
Glamorous causes can hog the funding. “Sometimes you’re really struggling to cover the basics, but you can get funding to do nice fun things,” says Featherstone. “Or you can support a more able student, but not a middle or lower ability one.”
Plus the organisation providing the funding must be a good match for the school. “A company has to be suitable for the school to work with and there can be challenges within that,” says Ballantine. “And the school has to embrace any requests the businesses might have.”
There are also staffing issues. “In small schools heads don’t have the time, expertise or staff to write bids,” says Bates. “There’s a divide forming between schools.”
Making more of space
Another way of making money is to rent out space – from car parks to sports halls. Morales says there’s “no excuse” not to do this, as it’s a regular income with a relatively low risk factor. “If you’ve got space there has to be a way of sweating that asset,” he says.
But not all can – Featherstone isn’t able to rent her new-build school, while Garvin’s building is open plan, meaning the school couldn’t let areas without giving access to everything, including computer rooms.
Despite the difficulties, Morales says fundraising is now necessary, and schools must do what they can. “There are opportunities whatever your situation,” he says. “Government policy is firmly in the direction of reducing the public deficit, austerity, challenges with Brexit, and an NHS that’s on its knees. So I can’t see we’ll get an increase in funding for schools anytime soon and we’ve got to do the best we can.”
Ballantine agrees. “Fundraising is our only option in the face of inadequate funding,” she says. “It’s either that or schools having to close.” The situation, says Bates, is worrying. “The message time and time again is that there’s no money and we’re seeing the impact on children. It’s frustrating and a very bleak picture.”