Anger over postcode lottery of school charges for practical classes

Tens of thousands of high school students in Scotland are charged between £5 and £125 for home economics, art and other practical classes – while thousands more children do not pay fees for the same lessons.

An investigation by The Ferret can reveal that all 66 secondary schools in eight local authority areas request payments for materials in at least one subject. Some schools in 13 council areas also charge but 57 schools in six areas do not ask for any payments.

The postcode lottery of charges has been condemned as “unacceptable” by the parents’ body, Connect, formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Additional charges “fly in the face” of Scotland’s claim to an “inclusive and fair education system,” it said.

The system has also come under fire from Scottish Labour who said that schools were not properly funded. The Scottish Government pointed out that it was working to reduce costs for poorer students.

Some councils defended charging at the discretion of head teachers and are raising prices and introducing new charges for different subjects. Others, however, said they are trying to reduce charges to limit “the cost of the school day” while a few failed to release information.

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Schools charge to cover the cost of resources such as cooking ingredients or woodworking materials needed for practical lessons. Most commonly this happens in home economics, hospitality, art and design and practical craft skills.

But documents released under freedom of information law show wide variations between and within council areas. Some schools expect weekly, termly or annual contributions from students, while others avoid charges altogether.

Some schools, including most of those in Stirling  and one in West Dunbartonshire, exempt students in receipt of free schools meals or living in the areas of highest deprivation.

The most expensive school in the country is Crieff High School in Perth and Kinross. It charges students studying hospitality at National 5 qualification level £125 for cooking ingredients, though it said it is planning to reduce the costs.

The next highest charges for practical subjects were £100 at Eyemouth High School in Scottish Borders and £91.50 at Forrester High School in Edinburgh.

Four schools in Aberdeenshire charge £90, including Ellon Academy, Fraserburgh Academy, Mintlaw Academy and Portlethen Academy. Holy Cross High School in South Lanarkshire also charges £90, while Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney charges £88.72.

Other schools with significant charges for practical subjects include £65 at Grove Academy in Dundee, £70 at Balfron High School in Stirling and £80 at Carnoustie High School in Angus.

Councils where all schools charge

Local authorityNumber of high schoolsHighest charge
Scottish Borders9£100 per year for home economics at Eyemouth High School
South Lanarkshire17£90 per year for home economics
East Lothian6£80 per year for home economics at Dunbar Grammar School
Stirling7£80 per year for home economics
Dundee9£65 per year for home economics at Grove Academy
Moray8£60 per year for hospitality at Speyside High School
Clackmannanshire3£35 per year for home economics at two schools
Shetland7£15 per term for home economics at two schools
Source: Local authorities

Our investigation also shows that a number of schools have either increased existing charges of introduced new ones.

Hawick High School in the Borders has increased charges for National 5 home economics from £30 to £50. Mearns Castle High School in East Renfrewshire has raised the cost of National 5 cake craft from £35 in 2017-18 to £50 in 2019-20.

Campbeltown Grammar in Argyll and Bute has increased the home economics charges at all levels, with the biggest jump taking National 4 classes from £20 to £30. The school also allows art pupils to buy “better quality sketchbooks” for £3 and practical craft skills students to pay to produce more complex clocks.

Ross High School in East Lothian has increased some existing home economics charges by a third and introduced new charges of £5 and £20 for S1 and S2. Elgin Academy in Moray and Arbroath High School in Angus now charge up to £55 and £50 for some of their practical subjects.

Every secondary school in Scottish Borders, South Lanarkshire, Dundee, East Lothian, Stirling, Clackmannanshire, Moray and Shetland applies charges for at least one practical subject. The rates vary significantly.

Councils where some schools charge

Local authorityNumber of high schoolsHighest charge
Perth and Kinross11£125 for hospitality at Crieff High School
Edinburgh23£91.50 per year for home economics at Forrester High School
Aberdeenshire17£90 for home economics at four schools
Orkney5£88.72 per year for home economics at Kirkwall Grammar School
Aberdeen10£80 for hospitality at Harlaw Academy
Angus8£80 per year for hospitality at Carnoustie High School
West Lothian11£70 per year for home economics at Broxburn Academy
East Dunbartonshire8£50 per year for home economics, hospitality and cake craft at three schools
East Renfrewshire7£50 per year for cake craft at Mearns Castle
Argyll and Bute8£44 for home economics at Islay High School
West Dunbartonshire5£40.50 for home economics at Dumbarton Academy
North Lanarkshire19£40 per year for home economics at Dalziel High School
Renfrewshire11£35 per year for home economics and cake decorating at three schools
Source: Local authorities

In contrast, no schools in North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Inverclyde, Dumfries and Galloway or Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar charge students for practical classes. According to South Ayrshire Council “charging children would disadvantage the most vulnerable and those in poverty”.

Two schools in East Ayrshire which previously applied charges have removed them. Documents show that between 2015 and 2018 one of them, Auchinleck Academy, raised  £12,000 from charges – income which it will now have to do without.

In West Dunbartonshire Our Lady and St Patricks has used pupil equity funding (PEF) to remove previous charges of up to £30 across S1-6. PEF is made available by the Scottish Government to help students from deprived areas.

In Stirling some schools are using PEF money to exempt the poorest families but retaining charges for others. Renfrew High School in Renfrewshire, Liberton High School in Edinburgh, Coltness High School in North Lanarkshire and St Margaret’s Academy in West Lothian have eliminated charges in recent years.

Significant disparities in charging policies exist within some local authorities. In East Dunbartonshire Kirkintilloch High School has no charges but all others – including two in the same town – do. The highest are the £50 cost of senior classes at Boclair Academy, Lenzie Academy and Bearsden Academy.

Pupils are charged at all schools in Aberdeenshire with the exception of Peterhead Academy. In Argyll and Bute although Campbeltown Grammar and Dunoon Grammar School levy charges for most practical subjects, Tarbert Academy, Tiree High School and Tobermory High School do not.

Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest local authority by population size, refused to release information, claiming that that doing so would be too expensive. Instead it offered data from a “sample” of schools, but provided no information about how this sample was selected.

Highland, Falkirk, Fife and Midlothian councils all failed to respond to freedom of information requests, as did five schools within Edinburgh City Council.

Councils where no schools charge

Local authorityNumber of high schools
Dumfries and Galloway17
North Ayrshire13
South Ayrshire8
East Ayrshire8
Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar5
Source: Local authorities

Councils which did not respond, or didn't release information

Local AuthorityNumber of high schools
Source: Local authorities

What parents and politicians said about charges

Surveys by parents’ organisation, Connect, showed that parents wanted every young person to have access to the whole curriculum, regardless of income. “We claim to have an inclusive and fair education system in Scotland and subject charges fly in the face of this,” said Connect’s Eleanor Coner.

“Many families are financially vulnerable and charges for home economics, or art, or technology subjects, are unacceptable. This is a really important issue for Scottish Government and local authorities to address.”

She pointed out that resource budgets per pupil had been cut back in recent years, leaving parents to cover the costs. “Assumptions are made that families have spare money for pens, pencils, paper, files, text books and can access the internet as well as for subject charges,” she argued. “These assumptions need to be challenged urgently in every school within every local authority.”

The Scottish Labour MSP, Mary Fee, said: “Children are being forced to pay the price for the SNP’s failure to properly fund councils. Every round of SNP cuts to councils results in stretched services and additional charges for the public.”

The Scottish Government stressed that all children should expect to be able to access all subjects. “It is not acceptable for schools to ask pupils to pay for a core part of their curriculum,” said a government spokesperson.

“Councils have a legal responsibility for providing an adequate and efficient education, suitable to the needs of every child. Improving the education and life chances of all our children and young people – irrespective of their background – is one of the defining missions of the Scottish Government.”

The spokesperson added: “That’s why we are investing £750 million during this parliament to ensure every child has an equal chance to succeed. As part of this, in 2019-20 we are providing over £120m pupil equity funding directly to schools for headteachers to spend at their discretion to close the poverty related attainment gap.”

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What the councils said

Perth and Kinross Council said that Crieff High School’s home economics department was “reviewing their curriculum offer with a view to planning towards reducing the costs, and zero cost for those experiencing societal barriers to learning.”

A council spokesperson added: “We have an ambition to reduce or remove costs of core practical subjects as part of the extensive work we are doing on the cost of the school day, and all Perth and Kinross secondary schools are working with their school communities to achieve this.”

Scottish Borders Council accepted that “that some of the charges currently being levied may be prohibitive”. The charges were “managed individually by schools” and the council was “committed to working with the schools to minimise these,” said a spokesperson.

Aberdeenshire Council’s head of education, Vincent Docherty, said: “The range of charging for practical subjects is at the discretion of Aberdeenshire secondary school head teachers. These decisions are taken following consultations with parents.”

Argyll and Bute Council said: “All our pupils are provided with the resources required to enable them to complete their course. In some subjects, pupils have the option to purchase additional materials if they wish. With regards to home economics, there has always been an additional contribution for ingredients.”

Moray Council said that charging for practical lessons within schools was at the discretion of head teachers. “Funding from the UK Child Poverty Action Group has enabled the recruitment of two ‘cost of the school day’ project workers to be based in Moray who, as part of their role, will be working with schools to review this charging structure,” added a council spokesperson.

Carole McKenzie, head of education at South Lanarkshire Council, said: “Currently schools have the freedom to set their own charges for practical subjects based on their local context, and it is usual for families on low incomes not to be charged.

“However, we accept this is an area that would benefit from a more consistent approach, and so we have appointed a part-time ‘cost of the school day’ officer to provide training and guidance to schools this session and are asking all schools to review their practices.”

Jacqui MacDonald, chief education officer of East Dunbartonshire Council, said: “We are aware of the different approaches taken by schools in relation to the levy of a small charge for practical subjects. This is being reviewed as part of our work on the ‘cost of the school day’ policy.”

A Dundee City Council spokesperson said: “Where appropriate some children and families make a contribution towards the cost of these subjects. Schools have used pupil equity funding to remove some subject costs and schools will continue to explore all options to help cover the cost of these subjects for pupils.

“It is essential that we look at family incomes and support schools to work with pupils, staff and parents in Dundee to understand these and develop ways to remove financial barriers.”

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “We are aware of the financial impact different charges can have on families so have issued guidance to head teachers in a bid to reduce the cost of the school day.”

An East Lothian Council spokesperson said: “Our schools endeavour to keep costs as low as possible so that all young people can participate. Support is available for families on low incomes and we encourage people to discuss this directly with their school.”

An Angus Council spokesman said: “All of our schools are aware of the importance of the cost of the school day and are actively working to evaluate and reduce this where possible.”

Stirling Council underlined the measures it took to mitigate charges. “We make sure young people who are in receipt of free school meals and clothing grants are exempt from any of these charges,” said a council spokesperson.

Five councils – East Renfrewshire, Orkney, North Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Inverclyde – did not respond to requests to comment.

All the data about high schools charging for classes is available here. This story was updated at 9am on 22 October 2019 to correct the name of Dunbar Grammar School in a table.

On 23 October Fife Council responded saying that charges were levied in some of its schools, with the highest being £92 at Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline.

Poll: Should schools charge pupils for practical classes?

Photo thanks to iStock/nuiiko
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