Schools are having to ask parents to donate pens, paper, even loo rolls. It’s no laughing matter.

St Edmund Campion Catholic Primary School, Maidenhead, made national news this month when it asked parents to donate “a never-ending supply” of toilet rolls. “Politically motivated utter nonsense”, harrumphed the leader of the local council.

As headteacher Tricia Opalko told the local press, the school was responding to a query from parents about how they could help with funding, and there were 17 items on its wish list, including pens and paper. But it was the toilet rolls that hit the headlines, combined with the fact that St Edmund Campion is in Theresa May’s constituency.

Parents reading this might be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing new in a school asking for money. Until recently all our maintained Catholic schools were voluntary aided (VA). Seventy-six per cent still are, and VA schools have to pay a proportion of their own building and maintenance costs. Hence the school building fund. Thus, 35 years ago when our eldest entered Reception, we forked out £5 a term. By 2016, when our youngest left school, the direct debit had doubled to £10. But what is being asked for today is of a different order, and for a different purpose.

A few miles to the west of St Edmund Campion, Robert Piggott Church of England Junior School asks parents for £1 a school day, or £190 a year. A little further west, Caversham Primary in Reading makes the same request; and across the country a fifth of schools now ask parents for donations to meet basic costs.

The Government insists there is no crisis. Almost all news reports about school funding end with this statement from the Department for Education (DfE): “By 2020, per pupil funding will be 50 per cent more than in 2000.” This may be true, though headteachers are quick to point out that the comparator years seem carefully chosen: 2020 is in the future, and 2000 was right at the start of the spending boost from Tony Blair’s thrust for “education, education, education”. Comparing 2010 and 2018 tells a different story. More importantly, the DfE’s claim ignores the impact of rising costs.

The apprenticeship levy, for example, was introduced in 2017. VA schools, on the whole, dodged this bullet because it’s a charge on organisations with a wage bill of more than £3 million. But a local authority or a multi-academy trust (MAT) has a single payroll for all its schools, so community schools and those which are part of a MAT do pay the levy. Last summer St Edmund Campion joined the Diocese of Portsmouth’s Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati MAT, and was immediately liable to pay more than £7,000 in an apprenticeship levy – which is a lot of toilet rolls. (I have yet to be told by a single headteacher that his or her school has benefited in any way from the apprenticeship levy.)

Until May, when Damian Hinds scrapped the policy, it was the Government’s intention that all church and community schools should join MATs. Many have done so, and then found themselves paying more heavily towards the MAT’s central services, including the salary of the chief executive, than they had previously contributed to their local authority. Typically, MATs take a five per cent top slice from the school’s budget. In the case of a larger than average primary school like Edmund Campion, this could amount to more than £80,000 a year.

It is not just schools in MATs that face rising costs. In England and Wales, local authority budgets for special needs and disabilities (Send) are currently overspent by £400 million. Every year it gets harder to find the resources needed to work with Send children – increasingly, a child with any kind of special need is a net cost to the school. It’s no accident that in recent years an increasing number of Send children have been unable to find a mainstream school place or, one way or another, have been excluded from school.

But the foregoing are small beer when compared with the huge increase in employment costs which affect every single school. Typically, 85 to 90 per cent of school spending is on staffing, and in 2010 national insurance and pension contributions added 15.3 per cent to my school’s wages bill. This year these add-on costs amount to 25.8 per cent, and for my school the difference between 15.3 per cent and 25.8 per cent of salaries is £149,000.

My father took up his first headship in 1951 and was bemused to find that someone had surely blundered: a room in his school was filled with hundreds of toilet rolls. If we recovered that £149,000, I could fill a similar room – like my father, I would never have to order another roll for the school. I could give some to Tricia Opalko and still have a bob or two left over for pencils … and teachers.

John Cosgrove is headteacher of Christ the King Catholic Primary School in Reading

This article first appeared in the July 6th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here