Schools and teachers must stop naming and shaming parents or children for not paying so-called ‘voluntary contributions’ or other charges, an Independent senator insisted yesterday.
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 they 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.
“You as legislators have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to direct your passion not at principals and teachers, who are trying to do their best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but at the minister for education and the minister for finance who are failing to provide the needed resources,” he said.
“Senator, I’m well aware that you and others will have got complaints over the years about teachers who are insensitive, or schools who put undue pressure on. And no-one in the educational system would stand over or ever condone that.
“But what you don’t hear about are the schools and the principals and the teachers who, every day of the week go the extra mile; who often put their own hand into their pocket to see that children are not embarrassed, or that they get to go on that school trip, and who wring every ounce of funding they can from the department to try and provide a high quality education,” Mr Mulconry said.
Ms Ruane said all she had heard was about teachers that are doing their best, but that she expected nothing else from teachers than the kind of passion Mr Mulconry described.
“But when we talk about the failings of some teachers, we can’t go ‘Well, let’s not look at that, let’s look at what’s working.’. That’s the problem. It’s the narrative,” she said.
“I don’t want to only hear about the teachers’ experience because they’re not the only ones in the school. Everyone is sharing the space.
She said there are amazing teachers and principals working in schools, but every time we talk about what is wrong, people shouldn’t say, ‘Well look at what’s right’.”
“ We have to go: “D’ya know what, there’s so much good things about schools, but as boards of management and as people that have a say in here, I’m gonna take what you’re saying, Lynn, and I’m going to say that the culture that exists in some schools needs to be across the board, and acknowledge the stories I’m talking about, instead of trying to bring in the positive stuff to drown them out.’”
FF: End 'voluntary' school payments
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 has said.
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 thewhat 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 transiiton year, or some other school activity, or similarly penalised because their parents were unable to pay the ‘voluntary contribution’,” said Mr Browne.