Fianna Fáil call for end to ‘voluntary’ school payments as pupils 'being poverty shamed'

Fianna Fáil call for end to ‘voluntary’ school payments as pupils 'being poverty shamed'
File photo of schoolchild.

By Niall Murray, Irish Examiner Education Correspondent

Future increases in school budgets should be linked to enforcing the voluntary nature of any contributions from families to running costs, Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne has said.

It comes as the Irish Examiner reveals that an Independent senator insisted yesterday that schools and teachers must stop naming and shaming parents or children for not paying so-called ‘voluntary contributions’ or other charges.

Lynn Ruane told school representatives such practices need to be ironed out rather than accounts of what happens being “drowned out” with stories about the positive work in schools.

At an Oireachtas education committee hearing on school costs and pressures on families, she said many children already live with the shame of poverty as parents hide from loan sharks they turn to for help with back-to-school costs.

“They then go into the classroom and have the teacher further shame them... making them stand up and asking them why the haven’t paid their book money,” she said. “One teacher asked a child and said to them: ‘It’s children’s allowance tomorrow, so why don’t you tell your mother to pay it out of that?’ This is the shaming that’s going on in classrooms.”

Ms Ruane said management are right to say their schools need more public funding, but they need to do more themselves.

“They can add to their recommendations... the urgent need [to stop] shaming of children in the classrooms,” she said.

Or doorstepping the parents as they drop their kids off at school in front of other parents to ask them questions about money and funding.

Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, said teachers are at the frontline in the fight against poverty and the vast majority have a deep respect for pupils and parents. He said the State is failing in its duty to provide free primary education.

Fianna Fáil call for end to ‘voluntary’ school payments as pupils 'being poverty shamed'

Fianna Fáil's Thomas Byrne said the reversal of Department of Education cuts to the capitation grants given to schools for their non-pay costs remains a priority in the upcoming budget. The amount that each schools is around 15% less for every pupil than in 2010, but a 2016 Programme for Government commitment to annual increases has not been met.

At the Oireachtas Education Committee yesterday, parents’ representatives said that so-called ‘voluntary contributions’ are being increased and one said they are effectively compulsory despite a ban by the department, while schools blamed State underfunding for having to seek these payments.

Mr Byrne said the capitation grant is a key issue in terms of Fianna Fáil’s priorities for the budget.

I would hope that, if we can get capitation increased to sufficient levels, you could then absolutely prohibit contributions that are not voluntary,” Mr Byrne said.

“And the only way to make them voluntary is really to anonymise them, to have them completely anonymous. A lot of parents will [continue to pay] and that’s grand, but there will be no obligation so that’s certainly something we want to see happening.”

Asked by the Irish Examiner what he meant by “sufficient levels”, he said that would have to be discussed by his party. However, he said it would not be something that could be introduced immediately in order to ensure schools are not ‘adversely hit overnight’.

The National Parents’ Council-Primary said 76% out of 1,789 parents who responded to its survey are still asked for a ‘voluntary contribution’ by their children’s schools. The average amount stated by parents was just under €100, and more than half who answered a follow-on question said there is pressure to pay put on them.

Council chief executive Áine Lynch said the findings raise serious questions about how voluntary the contributions are in reality, and that the issue needs to be addressed urgently.

Despite many reassurances by the Department of Education and ministers for education that this contribution is a voluntary payment, and that there should be no pressure on parents to pay, these survey results show that that is not the reality on the ground,” she said.

Ms Lynch said the wide range of payments parents are asked for creates a financial relationship between them and schools instead of an educational one.

National Parents’ Council-Post Primary president Geoffrey Browne said that ‘voluntary contributions’ are effectively compulsory.

“We consistently and frequently receive calls from distraught parents to report that their children have been denied lockers at school, not allowed to participate in transition year, or some other school activity, or similarly penalised because their parents were unable to pay the ‘voluntary contribution’,” said Mr Browne.

This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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