Should parents pay?
As the pressure mounts for every child to have home access to a computer and the Internet, a debate rages over who should pay. Indeed, certain parents believe that the state school system should provide everything for their child. Equally, some school governors and teachers are vehemently opposed to asking parents to make any financial contribution towards schooling costs.
But are these really the views of the masses today? Are they realistic - and fair? Valerie Thompson, Chief Executive of the e-Learning Foundation shares her findings and views.
'Their parents won't pay.'
There's no doubt that parents already spend millions of pounds on technology for their children such as PSPs, Gameboys, Playstations and mobile phones. But this technology is more about social networking, communications and entertainment than it is about education. On the positive side, 70% of school children can go online at home and over six million have access to a home computer. So, when it comes to parents buying a computer and providing the Internet for their child's education - why should it be any different?
Certainly, the cost to the taxpayer of providing every schoolchild with a computer and the Internet at home suggests that, in most cases, the financial responsibility almost certainly has to rest with the family. Yet, when I visit schools and explain how providing every student with their own computer device will have to involve parents making a contribution, I'm regularly informed that 'their parents won't pay.'
The three main objections
Education is 'free'
This premise affects both the willingness of schools to ask parents to pay for 'extras', and also parents' willingness to contribute to the cost of educating their children.
Schools are responsible for all of a child's education
Some schools are partly to blame for a belief amongst certain parents that - other than making sure their children turn up in the morning and complete their homework - they don't have any responsibility for their child's education. As a result, parents are rarely regarded as having anything other than a marginal role in the pedagogy.
Poorly presented evidence
Often, the positive impact of technology on educational results just isn't communicated well.
Eradicate the divide
The e-Learning Foundation is a national education charity committed to eradicating the 'digital divide'. Funding comes from a number of sources including government (provided through DCSF and Becta); charitable trusts (including The Mercers Company and The Vodafone Trust); corporate social responsibility programmes run by private companies; and through providing services to schools to help them minimise the administration of collecting parental donations by utilising Gift Aid (a donation management service).
Under the e-Learning Foundation approach, also described as the 'equity model', every child has the same opportunity to take part, even if their parents are unable to pay all, or some of the suggested amount. The e-Learning Foundation helps schools that have a high proportion of families who would find it hard to contribute more than a nominal amount. The grants aren't intended to be used as a general subsidy but as specific financial cover for the most needy families.
The e-Learning Foundation has recently surveyed the schools it works with to quantify the levels of current participation by parents in school-driven home access and e-learning programmes. The outcomes are particularly interesting because the Foundation targets its help on schools serving disadvantaged communities. The survey results provide overwhelming evidence that parents are willing to engage financially:
- Both primary and secondary schools are winning the support of parents to contribute towards a device that is specifically intended to support learning; on average two hundred students per surveyed school have home access. Overall, about fifty thousand students from disadvantaged communities now have access to a device they can take home, as well as use at school, largely thanks to parental contributions.
- In 60% of the schools surveyed, over 60% of parents are contributing, and in 40% of the schools, that figure is over 80%.
- Over half of the schools received donations from parents of up to £10 a month while the other half received over £10. The top 10% received over £20 a month.
- Over 60% of the schools have already engaged with more than one year group and 81% plan to extend their programme to another year group in September 2008. So, this is beyond an initiative or pilot; these are sustainable programmes with no automatic government grants or initiatives propping them up. These projects are parent powered!
The problem with parents
This year the e-Learning Foundation will have collected £1m of donations via direct debits from parents. It is estimated that the same amount again will have been collected in cash payments made direct to schools; something the e-Learning Foundation intends to help schools deal with in the coming months.
However, when we asked schools what were the biggest problems encountered in getting their schemes running, and keeping them going, parents were cited as the biggest headache. So what is it about parents that presents schools with a challenge? Some schools believe that parents are unwilling to support home access programmes because of:
- Their concerns over traditional values (handwriting, reading books, playing outside). x Worries over the safety aspects of wireless technology and carrying computers to and from home. (The recent Panorama programme was particularly unhelpful, and statistics on the low level of incidents of children having their computers stolen are often ignored).
- Activists (very occasionally, small groups of difficult parents try to disrupt the scheme on points of principle).
- A belief the State should provide.
- A belief that parents are unwilling to financially contribute.
A changing world
At present, the digital divide is still increasing, but the world is changing with a growing understanding by both parents and teachers of the benefits of home access. This is being propelled by the growth of learning platforms in schools, falling prices of laptop computers and a wider range of affordable connectivity options such as cable, satellite, WiMax, hot spots, 3G dongles and built in SIM cards. All these changes conspire to make home access more affordable. As the learning gets more interactive, personalised, meaningful and motivating, the argument for parents to invest in these resources for their children becomes even more compelling.
Parents will pay
The evidence is clear. When the case is put across well by schools, parents will pay. The potential to use technology to improve the education prospects of children from low income families is significant, but the full potential will only be realised when schools and families work together and respect each other's roles as joint investors and educators of their children.