Parents are increasingly being asked to help fund school budgets. Some parents won’t begrudge this too much. After all, many parents already pay for school trips and some extra-curricular activities, for example.

However, many would argue that asking parents to make financial contributions to items such as textbooks goes completely against the whole principle of a free education. Not only that, there are clear concerns that it sets a dangerous precedent and begs a disturbing question:

Are we heading towards the nightmare of ‘well-funded’ schools in affluent areas outperforming schools in deprived areas because of a lack of financial support from parents?

The educational divide: the current picture

Sadly, the answer to that question is that, yes, the nightmare of a divided school system is on the horizon. In fact, there is an argument to suggest that nightmare is already upon us.

The latest school ‘league table’ data shows that 282 secondary schools are underperforming across the country. There are wide variations in regional performance and some anomalies. London, for example, has the lowest proportion of underperformance, flying against the often-held belief that urban schools are more challenging and perform poorly.

But London is an anomaly. It proves what can be done with substantial extra funding and initiatives such as ‘London Challenge’, but such success has not been replicated across the country. In the North West, one in six secondary schools is failing. Within the region, Merseyside’s Knowsley is the country’s lowest performing local authority, with all of its six secondary schools falling below floor targets.

Stubborn underachievement remains for disadvantaged pupils at secondary schools. Those qualifying for free school meals still make significantly less progress on average than non-disadvantaged pupils. The Progress 8 score for all pupils in 2016 was -0.03. The figure for disadvantaged pupils was significantly worse at -0.38. This shows that initiatives such as Pupil Premium seem to be having little impact so far.

The educational divide – the future

An increasing number of reports have emerged in the media of schools asking for parental contributions, in some cases of up to £600 a year. A grammar school in Kent recently asked parents to stump up £60 to replace Science textbooks rendered obsolete by changes to GCSE and A Level specifications. Essentially, an ‘entry fee’ to take an examination course, this is a worrying development indeed.

Sympathy should be felt for schools. The school in Kent is facing a cost of £20,000 to replace textbooks for Biology, Chemistry and Physics alone. Coming at a time of real-terms cuts to education, the timing of examination reform could not have come at a worse time.

The problem of ‘voluntary contributions’

Voluntary contributions are just that – voluntary. They cannot be enforced, but it stands to reason that for schools in less affluent areas, the financial support they are likely to receive from parents will be far less than in areas of affluence.

The educational experience that children receive will undoubtedly vary and the ‘postcode lottery’ that is often talked about in terms of education will continue to exist.

Fair funding for all has to mean that no school is put in a position where they feel they need to ask parents to subsidise their child’s education.