Well, we made quite a stir last week in my day job when we published the annual Barnardos’ survey of back to school costs, writes Fergus Finlay
There was huge coverage, and a lot of public discussion. At one level it was very gratifying, at another deeply frustrating. We’ve been publishing these surveys for 10 years now, and in the process generating huge public awareness of an important issue. Everyone listens, and a lot of people get involved.
We’ve been publishing these surveys for 10 years now, and in the process generating huge public awareness of an important issue. Everyone listens, and a lot of people get involved.
Everyone listens, that is, but one. Year after year, the Department of Education turns a deaf ear to something that ought to be blindingly obvious.
The facts are simple enough. It costs around €350 to start a child in junior school, nearly €400 for a child going into 4th class, and not far short of €800 if your son or daughter is starting secondary school. I met a man last week whose three children — all of them still in primary — had so far cost €1,037 to get ready for this year’s education. Like every parent I know, he was feeling the pressure.
I met a man last week whose three children — all of them still in primary — had so far cost €1,037 to get ready for this year’s education. Like every parent I know, he was feeling the pressure.
But also like every parent I know, he was determined to do the right thing by his kids. No parent wants their child singled out because they haven’t got the right books, or because they’re not wearing the uniform prescribed by the school. No parent wants their child sent home with a note in their schoolbag from the school principal reminding mum or dad that the voluntary contribution is overdue.
No parent wants their child sent home with a note in their schoolbag from the school principal reminding mum or dad that the voluntary contribution is overdue.
So parents go to enormous lengths. Our survey found that one in 10 parents go into debt to pay for their children’s school costs, and many more forego paying other bills. The trouble with that, of course, is that an unpaid electricity bill doesn’t go away.
It’s a complete mystery to me that our state, year after year, allows parents to be put under pressure in this way to provide for the most basic requirements of education. In these two small islands, us and our next door neighbour, there are five separate jurisdictions. We are the only one with a written constitution.
Our written constitution says that, while the State acknowledges that the natural and primary educator of any child is that child’s family, the State also requires that every child must receive “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”. The State requires that, the constitution says, because the common good demands it.
And so the Constitution goes on to say that the State “shall provide for free primary education … and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities”. All of that is to be done with due regard to the rights of parents.
None of the other jurisdictions on these islands — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have a written constitution. Unlike here, no child in any of the other jurisdictions has a constitutional right to a free education.
But in those jurisdictions, education is of course covered by law. In the case of England, for example, their basic education act is a huge tome. The Education Act of 1996 has 583 articles and 40 schedules, covering every aspect of education. In Section 454 of the act, it makes clear that neither a parent nor a pupil “shall be required to pay for or supply any materials, books, instruments or other equipment” used in the school.
In Section 454 of the act, it makes clear that neither a parent nor a pupil “shall be required to pay for or supply any materials, books, instruments or other equipment” used in the school. Later on in the same section it says that no charge shall be made in respect of transport to school.
These same articles are replicated in almost identical terms in the legislation covering Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is a slight difference in tone between the legislation in the other jurisdictions and the constitutional provision here. There, education is seen as compulsory, and parents are seen as having a duty to ensure their children go to school. Here, there is much more emphasis on the rights of parents.
But in all cases, the education of children, at least to a basic minimum standard, is seen as fundamental to the common good. That is the primary reason, according to our constitution, why our children have an absolute right (up to the age of eighteen) to a free education.
The great irony — the unacceptable irony — is that in the jurisdictions where there is no constitutional right, vested in each child, the children are guaranteed a free primary education. In the only jurisdiction where every child has a constitutional guarantee, it doesn’t happen. And it’s not because of cost. The Department of Education has accepted that research we did last year is accurate. In that
The Department of Education has accepted that research we did last year is accurate. In that research we found that it would cost just about €100 million to ensure that books and transport were free at primary level, and that voluntary contributions would be no longer necessary as a form of school income. €100 million is about one euro in every hundred euro the Department of Education spends. Even in straightened times, it’s entirely affordable.
€100 million is about one euro in every hundred euro the Department of Education spends. Even in straightened times, it’s entirely affordable.
Why does the public good — here and everywhere else — demand that children be given a good decent basic education? We all know the answer to that. A child who gets a good start is a child who has a decent chance. There is a wealth of scientific data that proves these two things.
The first thing it proves is that a child who starts off in school behind is more likely to stay behind, and more likely to finish behind — and to finish earlier than they should. That’s why it’s possible to predict life-long outcomes for children at five or six years of age who are already struggling to keep up with their classmates.
Among the things it’s possible to predict are that the child who starts school behind runs a much higher risk of being dependent on social welfare, or of not being able to hold down a job, or of not being able to sustain good relationships. So the second thing the science proves is that investment in young education — because it helps to avoid all those risks — is repaid many times over by the state that makes it.
But we don’t seem prepared to make that tiny, necessary, additional investment. And the reason? It’s in the language of the Constitution, apparently. Despite appearances, the Constitution doesn’t oblige the Sate to provide free primary education — it obliges the State to provide “for” free primary education.
That little word is the reason the State has always argued that its job is to make the basic infrastructure available, and the rest is up to parents.
We can’t interfere with the rights of parents, nor the autonomy of schools, they say. They have argued that point again and again in a variety of court cases, and have sometimes won.
But when Ireland wins those court cases, who loses? Actually, Ireland does. The stuck in the mud attitude that denies children the basic tools they need to start life on an equal footing is an attitude that, among other things, prevents the talents of thousands of young Irish citizens from bubbling to the surface.
It’s an outdated policy and approach that aims to save pennies at the cost of a better future for all of us, and especially for our next generation.
A child who gets a good start is a child who has a decent chance.
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