Research undertaken by the British Humanist Association (BHA) has revealed a shocking number of state-funded ‘faith’ schools demanding financial contributions from parents, in flagrant violation of the law. The findings follow the revelation in March that the popular Grey Coat Hospital School in Westminster had sent letters requesting money from prospective parents, and suggest that such requests are far more widespread than first believed. The BHA has condemned the practice and called on the Government to take action, adding that it is unfortunately a natural consequence of allowing religious schools state funding in the first place.
Under current guidance, nothing prevents a school from seeking voluntary donations from parents with children at the school, but the law dictates that schools must not only ‘make it clear to parents that there is no obligation to make any contribution’, but also ensure that parents ‘not be made to feel pressurised into paying as it is voluntary and not compulsory’. On top of this, requesting financial contributions of any kind as part of the admissions process is prohibited under the School Admissions Code and Home/School Agreements are not allowed to contain requests for financial contributions.
Despite this, BHA analysis has found a large number of schools asking parents for money whilst either putting undue pressure on them to contribute or not making it clear that contributions were voluntary. Indeed, in a large number of cases the requests for money were described as mandatory.
For example, one Church of England primary school states on its website that ‘As a Church of England School, we have an annual payment of £30 for the school Building Fund/Capitation for parents. This is not a voluntary contribution but it is a payment all Church of England Schools require to maintain the school buildings and classrooms’. Another school’s website, this time a Catholic primary, explains that ‘As a voluntary aided school, parents of the pupils attending the school are responsible for contributing 10% towards all building works’, before asking for £100 per family. One Jewish school was even found to be requesting over £1000 a year (per child) from parents.
A number of schools also stressed that the requested contribution, far from being voluntary, was a minimumamount, encouraging families that could afford to pay more to do so. One school even suggested that parents should contribute to the fund by using the money they were saving as a result of receiving free school meals.
Speaking to the BHA, one parent who experienced this kind of pressure said, ‘Our school followed the rules about not mentioning the fund during the admissions process, so it came as a huge shock for new parents to be sent a request for £40 per child a few weeks after the start of term. The letter they sent said having to pay was a direct result of parents’ choice of a church school and the way they described the fund made it sound essential. One year when we were financially stretched we didn’t pay and they sent a reminder home with our son on brightly coloured paper, inviting us to either pay up or to discuss with the headteacher. We felt really pressurised into paying and lots of other parents weren’t sure if the payments were compulsory or not.’
Commenting on the findings, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson said, ‘It is scandalous that the 10% of capital costs which religious groups running state schools are obliged to pay is actually being demanded unlawfully from parents and even that money is being demanded at all. Religious schools and the government often justify the broad powers they have to religiously discriminate against children and teachers, or to set their own narrow RE curriculum, on the grounds that they’re footing some of the bill. These findings make a mockery of that argument, and also undermine the Churches’ claim that the primary aim of their involvement in education is to provide for the poor and disadvantaged. The fact that these abuses occur so widely and that it is only down to our investigation that they have been exposed, should call into question the whole system of regulation surrounding state-funded “faith” schools.‘
Details of the breaches
The BHA logged 100 specific schools that we believe are breaking the rules and then decided to stop as there are too many to log them all. Of those, 89 were ‘faith’ schools. The reason why so many are religious probably reflects the fact that voluntary aided schools’ religious authorities are required to pay for 10% of capital costs themselves (which comes to about 1-2% of the total budget). In fact, that figure was originally 50% when voluntary-aided schools were first established and was the justification given at the time for religious schools to be able to religiously discriminate in their admissions, employment and curriculum. However, given that the contribution is now greatly reduced and many schools decide to meet these costs through fundraising from parents anyway, there seems to be no clear reason why the schools should continue to enjoy their discriminatory powers.
In addition, government guidance also makes it clear that, for obvious reasons, schools are not to encourage parents to set up standing orders or direct debits when asking for voluntary donations. Again, a large number of the schools identified were doing exactly that, often including a Standing Order Mandate form as part of a letter.
It is important to note that given the nature of the legislation and guidance in this area, some violations are more clear-cut than others. That is to say that the requirements to ‘make it clear’ (that there is no obligation to donate) and to ensure parents ‘not be made to feel pressurised’ are, to an extent, subjective. Given this, and so as not to distract from the severity of the issue, we chose not to include a number of schools who may have been seen as ‘marginal cases’, despite the fact they could still have been said to be in violation of the law.
It is also worth noting that a number of the schools in our list may claim to have fully adhered to the law in documents or correspondence apart from those which we have captured (and which may be unavailable to us). In all cases we have done our best to ensure that what is presented here reflects the most recent information which is available on the schools’ websites and which parents (prospective or otherwise) would readily come across when looking for information. Schools should be making absolutely certain that any and all information published or circulated makes clear that contributions are voluntary and does not put pressure on parents.
Read the BHA’s full report on the findings: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Schools-requesting-financial-contributions-report-FINAL.pdf
See the table showing how much each school was demanding: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Schools-requesting-parent-contributions-1-2.xlsx