Our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE, reports on a Croydon Council U-turn over its unlawful charges of £3,500 per year to some parents of children at state primary schools
A campaigning parent is claiming victory over local authority bureaucracy after Croydon Council admitted it had been acting unlawfully in charging young children for reading lessons. The council could now have to make refunds to around 100 affected families, amounting to a total of more than £300,000.
The charges of £90 per week per child were imposed on the parents of children who were referred by their schools to a specialist literacy unit run by the council at Purley Oaks Primary in South Croydon.
Over the course of a year’s lessons, the charges would amount to around £3,500. When parents could not afford to pay the fees, Croydon Council denied the children the essential help they needed with their literacy skills.
The charging policy was introduced under the previous Conservative administration at the Town Hall, and endorsed in 2011 by the then cabinet member for education, Tim Pollard, who is now the leader of the Tory group on the council. The cynical charging policy has continued over the last 12 months under the Labour council, all based on advice provided by the legal team under Borough Solicitor, Julie Belvir.
The literacy unit at Purley Oaks employs four specialist teachers, all of whom work part-time. The unit is intended to provide extra help, typically three hours of lessons a week, to children who have failed to make the necessary progress in reading, as required by government Key Stage targets. It represents the only specialist literacy provision in Croydon, a borough which has some of the lowest literacy levels in London.
The charging policy first came to light in 2013 following a complaint made to the Secretary of State for Education by a local parent, Anthony Kennedy. He complained that the policy breached section 451 of the Education Act 1996 which bans any charges being made for state education. Kennedy’s complaint had originally been rejected by council official Belvir, who maintained that the charging policy was lawful.
In correspondence to the Department for Education from the council’s education chief, Paul Greenhalgh (who now glories under the ridiculous job title of “Executive director, People”), Croydon admits that the charging policy broke the requirements of education law.
“… the local authority has taken further legal advice and has come to the conclusion that charges made to parents for provision within school time for children attending publicly funded maintained provision were not lawful,” Greenhalgh writes.
“We now recognise that the authority was not fully compliant with all the legislative criteria…,” he adds. “Croydon Council will now apologise to the parents affected and offer to make reparation to them.”
Inside Croydon has not yet been able to establish if Croydon Council has been as good as Greenhalgh’s word and contacted any of the affected families, with an apology or the refund.
It is understood that the council intends to offer refunds only to those it unlawfully charged in the last three years, claiming that they have destroyed their records. How convenient for them. Kennedy has said that he is determined to seek refunds for all those who were subject to the council’s ill-considered scheme, going back possibly as far as 2006.
Greenhalgh’s letter to the man at the ministry also suggests that Croydon has not yet given up altogether on trying to charge children for teaching them to read. The council official writes that, “The provision is no longer available during school hours for parents to purchase. Schools will, however, be able to continue to purchase provision within reason using their available budgets for pupils with Special Education Needs. It is for schools to determine how they meet the needs of their pupils.”
In the past, Croydon tried to justify making charges because the lessons were being conducted at its specialist centre, rather than at the child’s own school. By withdrawing remedial reading lessons during school hours, as Greenhalgh suggests Croydon has done, they may seek to charge for lessons provided outside normal school hours.
And as before, whether charges are made will depend on the child’s school, and whether it has the money in its budget to pay for this essential education support.
After his two-year battle against council officialdom, Kennedy, from South Croydon, remains angry at the failure of the local authority and local politicians to defend the right to an education of Croydon children.
“What went on here was a disgrace. How can anyone have ever thought that it could be right to charge a seven- or eight-year-old to learn to read and write?” Kennedy said. “The council, and all the councillors involved, should now issue a public apology and promise that nothing like this will ever happen again.
“Just as culpable are the various MPs – Messrs Barwell, Reed and Ottaway – who represent Croydon. They have known about this for ages. I did think that when confronted by the news that primary school children in their constituencies were being charged over £3,000 a year to learn to read that they would be outraged.
“I assumed, wrongly it seems, that they valued the principle of a good quality state education, delivered free at the point of delivery. I imagined that they would kick up a stink, perhaps ask questions in Parliament. How stupid was I?
“Instead, they looked away and did absolutely nothing. They were all as useless and irrelevant as each other. Apparently, each of them, whether Conservative or Labour, thought that it was perfectly okay for children in their constituency to be charged to learn to read. Far worse, in their worlds, it was also okay for children, whose parents could not afford the fees, to go without the help they so desperately needed. They should be ashamed that they did nothing and should also now apologise to their constituents.
“It is shameful to think that because of this pernicious policy there are dozens of children in Croydon who have never learned to read properly. When these children needed help most, they were denied it, simply because their parents could not afford the fees. For many their life chances have been ruined and they have effectively been thrown on the scrapheap. These children are the real losers. They have been let down by our politicians.”
How Inside Croydon has broken the story of Croydon’s unlawful education charges:
- Labour council continues to charge for reading lessons
- Whitehall warns Croydon over unlawful reading lessons charges
- Gove allows Croydon to charge children for reading lessons
- Cynical Croydon charging children £3,500 for remedial lessons
- Inside Croydon Events: for dates and links to what’s happening in and around Croydon, updated daily, click here
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