Back to school costs: Government must uphold child’s right to 'free' primary education

By Niall Murray

The Government and schools are not living up to their duties to reduce education costs for parents, a charity has said.

In its annual survey of back-to-school costs, Barnardos found that uniforms, books, classroom items, and school demands for assistance mean families are dishing out €15 to €30 more per child than last year.

The average cost of sending a primary pupil back to school is €360 for senior infants and €380 for fourth class, but jumps to €765 for a boy or girl beginning second-level this autumn.

Barnardos pointed to a third budget in succession that did not meet a 2016 Government commitment to increase general funding for school running costs, a major factor in reliance on parents for fundraising and contributions.

Its survey also shows evidence of little response by schools to pressure from the Department of Education to introduce measures that would cut uniform and schoolbook costs.

The charity said uniform costs have gone up for nearly one third of parents and are unchanged for almost all the rest.

The average cost of clothing a first-year student for second-level school has shot up €55 to €245, a 29% increase that highlights what Barnardos said are school costs increases well in excess of general annual inflation. 

However, nearly one in four of the 753 responses from parents of second-level students related to children at fee-paying schools, which may be a factor.

The charity said the responses indicate the Department of Education’s April 2017 letter to all schools, urging them to reduce costs, has had little impact. 

They were pushed to provide parents with cost-saving options like sew-on uniform crests and book rental schemes, to ban single-use workbooks, and tender regularly for supplies of goods for parents.

Education Minister Richard Bruton’s communication to schools also suggested those doing most to reduce costs for families might get a bigger share of any public funding.

However, Barnardos said there has been no increase in the rate at which any of the country’s 4,000 primary or second-level schools are funded.

Although schools may get extra capitation grants if their enrolments increase, the amount paid for each pupil by Mr Bruton’s department has not changed despite his 2016-19 action plan promising to restore these capitation grant rates to pre-recession levels over three years.

“Ultimately if the cost to parents is to be reduced, additional funding will have to come from the State. 

"Yet despite recent commitments from the department, capitation rates have remained unchanged for almost a decade, forcing parents to make up the shortfall,” states Barnardos’ briefing paper on the survey.

A study for the Catholic Primary School Management Association earlier this year estimated that families and communities are subsidising Government spending in the primary sector alone by €46m annually.

A factor in this sees so-called voluntary contributions still being sought and parents often feeling pressure to pay.

Last year’s drop in the proportion of parents asked for such payments has been reversed, as these contributions are now required by 67% of primary schools, and by the schools of 71% of second-level parents.

The average amount sought at primary level is €85, up €5 on last year.

At second-level, this has gone up from €150 to €225 but this may partly reflect the high number of fee-paying schools represented in the survey.

While 13% of schools seek payments two or three times a year, perhaps to spread the burden, Barnardos said some parents may be left with no escape from costs.

Rise in parents borrowing to meet expenses

The number of parents borrowing to get their children back to school has doubled in a year, according to a survey for Barnardos.

One in seven parents are borrowing to ensure they can pay for school costs, double the proportion who told the 2017 Barnardos school costs survey that they did so.

The figure was much higher among second-level parents, with 21% borrowing money to meet their children’s school expenses, and 11% of primary school parents doing the same.

Just over one third of families are able to meet back-to-school costs out of the regular household budget, with 14% of the 2,201 survey participants borrowing from friends or family, using credit cards, or turning to a financial institution or money lenders.

Nearly 40% said they put off other bills or cut back in other spending areas, while 10% are able to dip into savings.

Another survey earlier this week, conducted for the Irish League of Credit Unions, suggested many more parents were going into debt and flagged rising numbers turning to moneylenders.

Neither survey is conducted scientifically, but more than 2,200 people answered Barnardos’ request for participants last month.

The charity said the resounding response was that the back-to-school period causes stress and financial strain, even for those who do not usually struggle.

However, the problems are magnified for those with additional challenges, such as lone parents, full-time carers, or families with a parent or child who has a disability.

One parent said their schools asks for a ‘voluntary contribution’ in October, and a ‘compulsory contribution’ in May, the total reaching €250.

I have three children. On top of that I have to buy school books and uniforms. It’s a huge financial strain.

Among the respondents, 12% are unemployed, 14% are engaged in home duties, and 7% were carers.

Nearly one in seven were parents of children in schools designated as disadvantaged by the Department of Education.

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said the survey has heard from parents that they are tired of having to pay for so-called free education.

“They are fed up being forced to amass debt or fall behind on essential bills year after year in order to cover the most basic costs of their children’s education,” he said.

The children’s charity is calling on the Government to uphold a child’s constitutional right to free primary education.

It wants to see an extra €103.2m a year invested to make this a reality, phased in over three years, and beginning with €20m from next year to provide free school books.

Barnardos wants a further €127m to be provided annually to make second-level education free — after free primary education is achieved.

Tablet devices drive costs up

 

School costs are increased for the one-in-four second level parents whose children are required to have a laptop or tablet device.

The Barnardos back-to-school survey found an average cost of €700 per student.

While there may be intended savings on printed textbooks, parents reported costs were driven higher by repair and replacement of damaged devices, and the 23% Vat applied to ebooks.

“No school books but have a Surface tablet. It’s updated every year but my child has broken it twice as it is so delicate, so will have to buy a new one this year which cost another €600,” one survey participant said.

Electronic devices do not mean an end to the cost — or weight — of printed material, either.

“Every teacher wants so many workbooks and hardback A4 project books that it’s just as heavy and expensive as before,” another parent reported.

In all but 19% of cases, parents whose second-level students had to have a laptop or tablet were required to pay themselves, and 77% had to also pay for software and apps.

Just 15% of primary parents reported that their children needed a digital device for school — up from 12% in 2016 and 14% last year — but the cost was covered in 95% of cases.

Schools also provided apps and software at no expense to 90% of parents of pupils needing the devices.

Barnardos said the continuing application of 23% VAT on ebooks makes many of them more expensive than traditional textbooks, which are exempt from VAT.

It called for a more speedy allocation of the €210m promised in the 2015-2020 Digital Strategy for Schools.

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