Schools in England could be raising around £150m a year from voluntary donations, research by Channel 4 News suggests.
With tight budgets, some headteachers told us they are increasingly reliant on donations to plug the gaps.
In November, a primary school in Theresa May’s constituency wrote to parents asking for donations to help pay for items including pens, pencils, exercise books and paper.
Another school in her constituency has told parents: “We are experiencing both rising costs and reduced funding, resulting in challenges to our school budget…
“Whilst we are committed to the principle of state funded education, we have asked parents to consider making voluntary contributions this year.”
Our estimates – based on a sample of data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act – show that the average state school received nearly £10,000 each from donations.
The sample covers hundreds of schools with more than a quarter of a million pupils. Of these, the average pupil was backed by £33 of voluntary donations.
But a lack of transparency around the issue means it is impossible to tell how much of this money covered optional extras, and how much was essential.
The source of donations is also not clear. Many schools have issued letters to parents asking for donations, but others may be helped by teachers, businesses or other organisations. The statistics also include contributions from charities and religious organisations.
Schools have long done fundraising activities to support additional resources or infrastructure – it is not a new phenomenon in itself.
However, with many schools looking to make savings, some say that this huge funding stream is now very important.
Research by the national PTA has found that “the chances of [parents] being asked for a donation have significantly increased in England”.
Channel 4 News found many examples of schools making desperate pleas for help. One had issued a “wishlist” to parents, asking them to contribute items including pens, pencils, paper and even handsoap.
A school in London said it was becoming more dependent on voluntary contributions and planned to use them to replace broken desks and chairs, among other things.
And the headteacher of a third school has told parents that being an expert fundraiser is “sadly now essential” for his job because of “unprecedented financial challenges”.
He said that one pupil had even “brought me the contents of her piggy bank money”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are clear that no parent can be required to make financial contributions to a school. No policies have been introduced by this government to allow schools to charge for education provided during school hours. Schools are welcome to ask parents for donations but must make clear these are voluntary.
“We are investing an additional £1.3 billion in schools funding, over and above existing plans, with core schools funding rising from almost £41 billion in 2017-18 to £43.5 billion in 2019-20. Every school will see an increase in funding through our new National Funding Formula from 2018.
“As the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed, overall per pupil funding across the country will now be maintained in real terms up to 2020, and our formula will provide significant gains for under-funded schools of up to 3% per pupil in 2018-19 and a further 3% in 2019-20.”