The Increased Role of Voluntary Action in Primary Education

To Bridge the Gap Report (2016)A Bridge Too Far Report (2018)


Our 2016 report To Bridge the Gap? Voluntary Action in Primary Education was the first significant piece of academic research to measure the extent and distribution of private donations to primary education in England.

We found that voluntary action – the giving of time or money – was widespread within primary schools, with many examples of schools where generosity was resulting in increased opportunities for pupils.

Across the local authority under examination, on average schools received 12.5 minutes per pupil per week of volunteer time and £43 per child per year of donated money. This support helped schools to deliver excellent teaching, to provide children with positive role models, to build links with the local community and to supplement school budgets. However, we also found significant inequalities between schools. Per pupil, volunteer time ranged from 72 minutes a week in some schools to less than a minute in others, while donated money ranged from £250 a year to none whatsoever.

To Bridge the Gap Report (2016)

“Voluntary action itself is good practice but has always been for extra-curricular and special projects. The concern is that we are now having to raise money for basic necessities due to cuts.”

Updated Research

In this latest report A Bridge Too Far: The Increasing Role of Voluntary Action in Primary Education, we have revisited the same data sources we used in 2016, including financial data from all primary schools in a local authority area, a survey sent to Head-teachers and Chairs of Governors of all the primary schools, and follow up interviews with a selection of schools.

Additionally, we have looked at school Parent Teacher Associations’ financial data accessed through The Charity Commission, which allows us to include money raised on behalf of schools as well as money raised directly by the school.

A Bridge Too Far? Report (2018)
Updated Research


We found four significant areas of change identified since 2016:

1. The amount of voluntary action in primary education is increasing

This is true for both donations of money and time. For the former, the amount schools raise on average has risen from £41 per pupil, per year in 2016 to £51 per pupil, per year in 2018, increasing to £94 per pupil when we consider PTA income. For the latter, the amount of volunteer time schools receive has increased from 12.5 minutes per pupil, per week in 2016 to 21 minutes per pupil, per week in 2018. Schools have achieved these increases through a more strategic focus on targeting their fundraising activities on less traditional sources such as businesses or foundations, and by taking a whole-school approach to volunteer recruitment.

2. We are seeing several breakaway schools with a strong culture of philanthropy embedded throughout the school

A culture of philanthropy means ensuring that the wider school community are aware of the benefits of voluntary action and what requirements the school has, and this is essential – although not enough on its own – for schools to break away. The highest fundraising schools raised nearly £600 per pupil, per year in 2018, more than doubling the highest figure of £250 per pupil, per year in 2016. The highest fund-raising 1% of schools now raise 10% of the total amount raised by all schools in the local authority.

3. The gaps between schools are widening

While some schools break away, others are standing still. Most notably, this gap reflects existing patterns of deprivation. Schools in the wealthier1 half of areas attract over twice as much donations of both money and time as schools in the more deprived half of areas. While embracing a culture of philanthropy has benefits for all schools, those in wealthier areas benefit far more further amplifying inequalities in education.

4. The push to attract more voluntary action is brought about by necessity rather than choice

The proportion of schools who said they were reliant on fundraised income to deliver core statutory education (day to day teaching activities) provision rose from 28% in 2016 to 43% in 2018, while the proportion of schools who rely on fundraised income to deliver general school activities (wider curriculum enhancing provision) has risen from 52% in 2016 to 75% in 2018. This increase reflects a troubling trend in school funding, with budget pressures forcing schools to explore alternative funding sources.

“Voluntary action in school generally enhances what we are able to offer. It used to be ‘the icing on the cake’ but now it is sometimes used for more core activities as well.”



In conclusion, we celebrate the growth in voluntary action over the past couple of years, the result of significant strategic and tireless approaches taken by schools. However, we are cautious for three reasons:

    • Firstly, the driver behind these efforts is declining budgets due to deceased statutory funding, and increased budgetary spending pressures.
    • Secondly, we are seeing a growing gulf between the schools who can access significant resources of time and treasure in the communities and those who cannot.
    • Thirdly, schools are increasingly having to do more than just educate and are raising money and recruiting to provide social welfare support for pupils and the wider community.

We are concerned that as this escalates, inequalities will grow and elements of what schools do will become privatised by stealth.

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Dr Ali Body
Faculty of Education
Canterbury Christ Church University
North Holmes Road