Raising money for schools during a pandemic

Alarm is growing over the loss of millions in crucial income from PTA events, just when the pandemic has added to school costs

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian

Among the many miseries inflicted by COVID-19, the cancellation of the school Christmas fair – that annual event that compels parents to pay £5 to buy back the toy they donated a week earlier – may not rank highly – but alarm is growing over the loss of this and other fundraising events hosted by parent teacher associations (PTAs) to plug the gap in schools’ finances.

Research by the charity Parentkind shows its 13,500 PTA members have lost as much as £42m in fundraising in 2020 because of the pandemic. The figures are especially bleak given that, over the past decade, state schools in England have faced their worst decline in funding since the 1980s, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Meanwhile, coronavirus has heaped higher bills at headteachers’ doors, such as setting up online learning, hiring more supply staff to cover isolating teachers, and heftier cleaning costs. If PTA funds were buying ‘extras’ before the pandemic, now they may have to cover teachers’ salaries and basic supplies.

At Brookland infant and nursery school, in Barnet, north London, the parent association used to raise an average £14,000 a year, says its headteacher, Brenda McCafferty. “We have always used it for projects such as a new toilet block, interactive TVs and a games’ area outside, as parents like to know what they are spending their money on.”

Big holes in budgets

This year, because of COVID, the PTA’s summer fair, Bonfire Night and cake sales have been cancelled, and the school did not benefit from its usual summer site lettings, leaving a £30,000 hole in its budget. “The government has told us that we can’t claim back loss of income, so we’re now forced to look at staffing costs. It is extremely difficult to balance the books. We will have to rely more on parental contributions and PA funding,” Brenda says.

However, not all schools can ask parents for money. Carol Rogerson, of the support group PTA+, says the impact of coronavirus on PTAs, “will definitely widen the gap between rich and poor”. “I’m seeing quite a few PTAs in deprived areas say they can’t fundraise at all this year because they simply can’t ask.”

Projects on Rocket Fund, a crowdfunding platform for schools, include an appeal to buy food for vulnerable pupils’ families and a £7,500 request for the hire of 30 computers.

In other schools, it is business as usual. “At some west London schools fundraising is almost a competition as to who can put in the most money,” says Carol. “I know of a PTA [in an affluent area] that’s raised £6,500 from selling face masks – more than a lot of PTAs make all year. We always advise asking the local community, and speaking to local businesses, but many of those are hard hit too.”

PTAs are not, however, all unused bunting and empty collecting tins, and some have run socially distanced events. In Weybridge, Surrey, the Friends of St James’ primary school set up a relay race over the summer. “Any families that wanted to take part sent me their addresses, and I plotted them all on a map,” says the co-chair, Daisy Huntington. “Each child had to run to the house of their nearest classmate, who would then continue the relay. People cheered from their doorsteps and the relay ended at the school gates.

“It was emotional for everyone – the first time in two months that any of the kids had seen each other, or their teachers – and it raised over £12,000.”

It’s a struggle

But most PTA fundraisers during COVID have been virtual. “Normally, we do discos, movie afternoons, arts and crafts events and three big fairs with as many as 700 people attending, raising £30,000 a year,” says Deborah Azagury-Slattery, chair of the PTA at Sinai Jewish primary school in Brent. “This year, it’s been a struggle, but we’re trying to be imaginative and ran a virtual family fun day, with online entertainers, arts and craft, raffle prizes and bingo, which raised £4,000.”

At small schools, PTA cash can be even more essential. “We have even more things that school needs to buy this year,” says Louise Stiff, a PTA member at Plaxtol primary, a Kent village school with only 97 pupils. “We’re looking to fund things like technology to enable teachers to run online learning, new handwashing facilities in the playground and marquees to help keep the bubbles safe outdoors.”

Her PTA, which usually raises £23,000 a year, brought in £3,500 from a virtual summer fair where children took part in sponsored at-home egg and spoon races, while animals, including a hedgehog, stick insect, tortoise and spider were entered into a money-raising virtual pet show (a dog called Dottie won).

PTAs are, increasingly, asking parents to sign up to lottery schemes such as Your School Lottery to raise money, as well as requesting sign-ups to shopping affiliate schemes such Amazon Smile, and Give As You Live, where a proportion of sales are passed back to the school.

Kate Atkins, head at Rosendale school, in Lambeth says, increasingly, PTAs are being asked to focus on children’s wellbeing. “Schools are being called upon to do more and more – for example, on mental health and wellbeing – while funding has not increased,” she says. “So we rely increasingly on PTA funds to support children and their families to cope with the additional stresses they face.

“These funds should be provided equitably to all schools via the government; however at the moment, schools are having to use PTA funds.”

Of course, the sweet spot is a PTA event that raises funds and boosts children’s spirits. At Harold Wood primary in Romford, east London, the PTA is working on, “a community Christmas Fayre – totally different from anything we have ever done”, says its secretary, Lindsey Philpot.

“We will have pop-up stalls on people’s driveways, instead of all crammed into a school hall. The children cannot wait.”

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