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. Some schools are also stepping in to feed disadvantaged children in the holidays.
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.”
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,” McCafferty says.
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”. She says: “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.”
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 Rogerson. “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 address 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.”
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 £4000.”
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.”
10 Covid-friendly PTA money-spinners
1 Distanced trails or a treasure hunt Organise for families to put a poster of a certain letter or image in their window, plot a map with all sites marked, and charge a few pounds for the map and a treat for the end.
2 Spare change challenge Give each class an empty bottle (the same size, such as a 2 litre drink bottle) and set up a competition to see which class can fill it with change the fastest.
3 Sell pre-packed crafts (such as jewellery making, make a soft toy with stuffing etc) where the PTA can buy in bulk and children can make something at them home over the holidays, or any lockdown.
4 Selling treats prepared according to anti-Covid hygiene rules in individually wrapped bags for children to enjoy at home, instead of the usual cake sales.
5 Non-uniform or crazy hair day.
6 Movie afternoon A Christmas treat for classes run in bubbles, either after school or during the last day of term. The PTA provides snacks and a film and parents are asked to donate in return.
7 Virtual Zoom party The PTA sets up an entertainer on Zoom and families are charged to join in.
8 Online raffle, auction or lottery Be careful, though, about licensing for selling virtual tickets to a non-physical event – see advice here. For help running a lottery there are operators such as yourschoollottery.co.uk.
9 Clothes drop-off scheme for families to dispose of unwanted goods, with proceeds going to the school. One such operator is bag2school.com.
10 Affiliate spending online PTAs benefit when ever a parent uses a website such as thegivingmachine.co.uk, giveasyoulive.com, or smile.amazon.co.uk to shop from sites including M&S and Boots (the first two), or Amazon.