AT one side of the playground are the children whose parents didn’t pay the £6.

At the other, those whose parents are organised enough – and sadly, wealthy enough – are happily playing with rugby balls, skipping ropes and footballs purchased by a “voluntary contribution” from home.

Voluntary contributions towards increasingly stretched school budgets are all well and good, but when children are very publicly penalised for not paying, it ceases to become voluntary.

A scheme which was branded “no pay, no play” by the tabloid newspapers came into force at Wednesbury Oak Academy, in the West Midlands, last week after the parent council asked for a £6 contribution per child to buy equipment for pupils to play with in their lunch break.

But the pupils who hadn’t paid were separated from those who had.

The headteacher – rightly incensed after receiving threats from parents – defended the scheme, saying it was a lunchtime club and the amount was just 15 pence each week per pupil.

It’s not the money that’s the issue, though.

The issue is effectively punishing and excluding the poorer pupils, ostracising them, discriminating against them for something which is completely out of their control.

It’s not cheap to feed extra mouths, and working parents struggling with the replacement of tax credits by the dreaded Universal Credit are already feeling the pinch. Strict benefit sanctions which see some parents having to turn to foodbanks to feed their families mean there is nothing left over – not even 15p a week.

It must be hard enough to live in poverty – or even in the ‘just about managing’ bracket without being forcibly segregated in the one place you should feel equal to every other pupil – in school.

If the education system mirrors wider society, it is surely here.

IT’S the 21st century and social division and inequality are supposed to be improving, not getting worse. There are already huge disparities between the achievements of underprivileged children and their wealthier counterparts in state schools, according to recent figures – and schools are the one place which are supposed to tackle inequality head-on.

The very reason most schools in the UK have a uniform policy is to avoid this very situation. Reports coming in from teaching unions suggest that for some time now, parents have been asked to contribute to basic essentials such as books, pens and even toilet roll.

If we apply the Wednesbury logic to that, we would see pupils only being permitted to use the toilet if their parents had contributed towards the bog roll. It’s a slippery slope.

Start asking for money towards all these little things, and then do they start asking for contributions towards the gas bill?

From there it is only one small step into the private sector. And then where do we go?

Do those who can’t pay for education start working in factories and cleaning chimneys?

I know, we’re getting into the realms of hysteria here. But my point is, we’re taking baby steps into privatisation of both the NHS and education. And from there... well, more baby steps and we might find ourselves in a Dickens novel.