School fairs proliferate at this time of year. This weekend, it was the turn of St. Peter’s, South Morningside, Craiglockhart and Stockbridge. And from what I saw, despite the chilly breeze and gloomy skies, they are as busy and bustling as ever. The parents at schools across the city should take enormous credit for the sheer organisational talent it takes and for the way that fairs showcase our local schools to the wider community.
For many attending it is the community nature of the event that most appeals and quite rightly so. But fairs are also a critical part of fundraising for schools. It was ironic, at Craiglockhart, to see the playground full of colourful stalls and activities set against a backdrop of scaffolding to deal with roof repairs that have been outstanding for six months.
At Craiglockhart tens of thousands of pounds have been raised by parents over the last 4 years: initially for playground improvements; but for the last two years to seek to equip “smart-boards” in every classroom; smart-boards which, in newly-built schools are provided as standard. Parent fundraising adds anything up to a million pounds of investment in our schools across Edinburgh. And I know that this is increasingly being spent on basics like books and equipment, not simply on added extras. I even heard of one school that had been able to pay its heating bill only with parent fundraising.
So what is wrong with that? Nothing, in one sense. The school fairs are fun events – although I am sure, not always so, for organisers! – so why not have fun and raise a bit of money in passing?
That’s fine when it is genuinely added extras that are being funded. But not if it is a core part of the school budget. Many schools are in communities where money is very tight and cannot hope to raise as much as others. Gavin Corbett, the chair of the parent council at Craiglockhart PS has also warned of parent fundraising becoming an alibi for the Council to make further cuts. There’s a point at which parents will say that voluntary fundraising is not meant to be a substitute for public investment.
And perhaps that points a way forward. Despite the Parent Involvement Act of 2006, too many councils and, sadly, too many schools, still treat parents as poor relations, at best, a source of additional funding but not really equal partners. I do see a role for parents as fundraisers but within a much more explicit strategy that seeks to iron out inequalities between areas; that seeks to incentivise parent fundraising (perhaps through match-funding) rather than using it to fill a hole; and which, above all, goes hand in hand with increased expectations parents can have in the future direction of their school.