Whitehall warns council over unlawful reading lesson fees

EXCLUSIVE: Croydon Council has been ordered by Whitehall to stop charging some of the borough’s children for reading and writing lessons, a practice described by one angry parent as “demanding money with menaces”. By GENE BRODIE, education correspondent

school genericThe council’s education director has been ordered to explain why Croydon has been charging parents more than £3,500 per year for reading lessons for their children, and he has been issued with a firm warning that the local authority is breaking the law in attempting to charge for the lessons in the new school year which begins next month.

The Department for Education wrote to Paul Greenhalgh, Croydon’s executive director for children, families and learning, last month. This was in response to complaints from parents that the local authority has been charging thousands of pounds for some primary school-aged children to attend remedial reading lessons at Croydon Literacy Centre, based alongside Purley Oaks School.

It is believed that Greenhalgh (annual salary £169,107) and Julie Belvir, the Borough Solicitor (on £130,530 per year), who was copied in on the DfE letter, have not yet managed to provide a response to the man from the ministry on the matter of Croydon Council breaking the law.

In his letter, the civil servant wrote that it is clear “that where a school refers a child to the Croydon Literacy Centre during school hours for necessary additional literacy support that cannot otherwise be provided on the school’s premises, the school must fund the cost, including travel between the school and the centre. Parents must not be charged for such additional literacy support”.

The DfE’s letter to Croydon Council marks a notable U-turn by Whitehall.

Inside Croydon first reported in May that the then Conservative-run council was making unlawful charges for reading lessons – despite the Education Act specifically banning such a “pay to learn” policy. But the first appeals to the Education department were re-buffed by the then Secretary of State in the Tory-led government, Michael Gove.

Gove has since been sacked from that job, and it appears that his department is now free to apply the law as it was intended.

The Education Department appears particularly concerned that Croydon is continuing to charge parents for their children’s education into 2014-2015, and it cites the Croydon Literacy Centre’s website and a council brochure, Learning Without Boundaries, which refer to parents having to “pay all or part of the fee”.

In the DfE letter, of which Inside Croydon has had sight, Greenhalgh is told, bluntly, to “explain the circumstances in which such fees are charged to parents, and confirm that parents are not being unlawfully charged”.

An extract from the website of the Croydon Literacy Centre, which clearly shows its intention to break the law by charging parents for their children's reading lessons

An extract from the website of the Croydon Literacy Centre, which clearly shows its intention to break the law by charging parents for their children’s reading lessons

The DfE letter spells out the requirements of the Education Act 1996. “Under section 451 of the Act, schools may not charge for education provided at a maintained school during school hours,” the Whitehall official states.

“It is clear from the relevant sections on charging in the Act that this includes both education provided by the school on the school premises and education provided outside the school premises under arrangements made by the school or local authority,” according to the DfE official.

In the past, Croydon Council has insisted that the charges for these lessons, vital for the children’s future, are compulsory. If the fees were not paid, then the child would be denied the lessons that they needed in the basics of reading and writing.

Paul Greenhalgh: has allowed the council to act unlawfully by charging children for reading lessons

Paul Greenhalgh: has allowed the council to act unlawfully by charging children for reading lessons

Serious questions remain about the manner in which Croydon Council executive directors, including the borough’s most senior lawyer, Belvir, have been able to ignore the law.

South Croydon resident Anthony Kennedy, who pursued the case with the Education Department, told Inside Croydon tonight, “It is quite appalling that Croydon could ever have thought that it was lawful to charge children to learn to read and write.

“This episode is so shameful that they may as well have been found to be demanding money with menaces.

“Important questions remain unanswered. How was this policy ever authorised and who authorised it? How could the Borough Solicitor and head of children`s services have ever thought that such a policy could be lawful?

“If, in fact, they advised that the policy was unlawful, then on whose authority was that advice overridden? In the meantime, what on earth were the elected councillors from all parties doing while all of this went on?”

Croydon Town Hall has been under Labour control since the end of May, although no action appears to have been taken by the new administration, under Council Leader Tony Newman, to act on this serious matter.

Kennedy is demanding that Croydon Council should re-pay all the fees to parents that it previously charged for providing reading and writing lessons. “The council should also urgently contact those children whose parents could not afford the fees and offer these children the remedial help which they have been denied up to now,” he said.

Inside Croydon contacted Greenhalgh and Belvir to ask whether any response had yet been sent to the Department for Education and whether the council’s unlawful policy of charging children to learn to read and write would be changed.

Greenhalgh is on holiday, Belvir failed to respond.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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4 Responses to Whitehall warns council over unlawful reading lesson fees

  1. east1956 says:

    Dear Lefties / Misguided Do Gooders,
    Many parents invest vast amounts of their time and money preparing and supporting their children for and through school. So much so that many parents are prepared to make the sacrifice of tens of thousands of pounds each year to send their children to the local public schools. The fees for each make the amount Croydon Council is charging seem quite paltry.

    Should these worthwhile hard working people be expected to subsidise the off-spring of ne’er-do-wells (riffraff), who are too lazy or indifferent to their children?

    While I can accept the argument that in the long term society will benefit, as literate and numerate children are less likely to turn to crime as a career option, the council is facing a financial crisis today. Future savings in the Metropolitan Police and HM Prisons budgets are all very well and good, but as we all know the current burden of taxation is weighing heavily on pensioners and working people.

    £3500 p.a. is a modest contribution for a bespoke remedial service and the fees do go to defray the costs of a highly professional education department. If the sum is considered onerous by some, then perhaps they should consider arguing for privatisation to achieve economies and probably improved performance. Possibly the Whitgift Foundation could step in to offer the same service? It has such a good reputation for delivering learning.

    I am therefore please to know that Cllr Tony Newman is committed to continuing the former administration’s policies that are so dear to the heart of most decent residents of Croydon.

    The Voice of Enlightened Croydon!

  2. There should be no place at Croydon Council for Members or Officers who break the law. If the Council policy is unlawful it must be changed. If the Law is viewed as wrong then lobby to change it but meanwhile one must not intentionally break it.

  3. £3,500 is a shockingly high cost for any remedial service for a year. In 2008 I went to the Institute of Directors and presented to them the case that all children could be properly screened for physical developmental disorders that underpin the majority of blockages to learning; and then work systematically to correct those blockages. Then I stated that I thought that the cost was in the region of £3,000 for a bespoke service for each child, assuming that we could train enough people. I was told that that was too much.
    I now think that that cost is in the region of £1,000 per child if children work in small groups, using new technology, and schools take the job seriously. For £3,000 you can buy the absolutely best integrated therapy available to change a child’s ability to learning ability.
    I assume that at the end of this £3,500 the children no longer struggle to learn or show significant symptoms of any learning disorder; and that there is clear evidence that the Borough’s intervention has moved the child’s learning significantly?
    Charlotte Davies, NPQH, FRSA, Level 2 Tomatis Practitioner, Director Fit 2 Learn CIC

  4. davidcallam says:

    I agree strongly with Mr Kennedy that surcharged parents should be refunded in full. And I want to know what the council leader, Tony Newman is going to do to discipline the senior officers who made this penny-pinching travesty possible.

    Any local authority that spent more than £200 million pounds it doesn’t have on a shiny new headquarters it doesn’t need has no case for being parsimonious with the education of the borough’s children.

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