FERGUS FINLAY: Counting costs of constitutional right to a free primary education

Suppose you went to the garage, worried about some strange noise your car was making. It was still trundling along, but you’d convinced yourself it was going to die any minute.

The mechanic gives a good look around the engine, the way mechanics do. He pulls a few things here and there, revs up the engine, and pulls a face when he hears the sound you’ve been worried about.

You know the kind of face I mean — the sort that gives you that sinking feel that a huge hole is about to appear in what’s left of your bank account. Then he goes into his little office and scribbles a few notes.

But then, to your surprise, he comes back out and tells you it’s not too bad.

“I’ve worked it out as accurately as I can,” he says. “I can fix that noise and get the car back on the road for €98.88.”

While you’re alternately sighing with relief and trying to figure out how he came up with such a precise figure, he goes on: “That’s a pretty basic repair,” he says.

“Might last a week, might last a few months. If you want to get the car humming, a pleasure to drive — and enhance its resale value, I’d be asking for €100.”

If that ever happened to you, you might faint from shock. But I’ll bet you anything that as soon as you recovered, you’d give him the hundred.

An extra one euro and 12 cent, to make the difference between something that works and something that you’re getting real value from — you bet you would. Every time.

But not, it seems, our Government.

The difference between our system of primary education, and totally free primary education, is 1.12% of the education budget — €1.12 in every €100. The Department of Education accepts that’s a correct figure, and yet they refuse to do anything about it.

It’s not just socially and educationally wrong, it’s nutty.

Investment in education, especially right from the start, is the best possible investment we can make in our future.

It has huge economic and social advantages.

That’s probably why we wrote into our Constitution a requirement that every child must receive “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”, and that: “The State shall provide for free primary education.” (Even that was a watering down of the commitment of the First Dáil, which said it would be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision so that every child would “be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training”.)

But our written Constitution still makes our children unique in these islands. Children in Ireland are the only ones who have a constitutional right to a free primary education.

But here’s the irony and the disgrace: The children of England, Wales, Scotland, and the North don’t have a constitutional right to a free primary education.

They just have free schools, free books, free transport to schools when it’s needed, no “voluntary” contribution for heating and lighting their schools. The only children whose parents have to pay are the children who are supposed to have a constitutional right to them.

In 1966, then Minister for Education Donogh O’Malley introduced free secondary education in Ireland. When he did it, he pointed out that at that time 17,000 children each year — a third of all children — were leaving school at the end of their primary education — not even starting secondary school.

He described that as a dark stain on our national conscience, and added: “There was no difficulty in picking out the basic fault in our present educational structure — and that was the fact that many families could not afford to pay even part of the cost of education for their children.”

Even in terms of those 17,000 children each year, look at the profound difference that one decision — which we were told we couldn’t afford at the time — has made.

Of course second-level education is not free either, but nevertheless it has been praised again and again as being one of the things that enabled Ireland to enter into a sustained period of economic and social growth.

Fifty-two years later, we can’t seem to learn that lesson. Parents are still carrying huge, sometimes unsustainable, burdens to pay for what ought to be a basic right for every child.

And that’s despite the fact that the capacity of our primary system to equip every child to grow and develop is the key thing that adds real value to every level of education thereafter.

My organisation, Barnardos, has been talking about school costs for years and the stresses and strains which they place on families, particularly those on low incomes and when there is more than one child in the school system.

This year, we’ve calculated the basic costs associated for sending a senior infant to school is €360, for a fourth class pupil it’s €380, and a student starting the first year of second-level it is €765. And we’ve pointed out the total cost of fixing this — and making primary education totally free as a first step, is €103m — a fraction over 1% of the Department of Education’s budget.

In 2013, a Joint Oireachtas Committee reviewed the realities of school costs and presented a report with some potential solutions — none of which have come to fruition.

The report recommended that voluntary contributions be greatly discouraged if not completely prohibited yet this practice is actually increasing — 67% of primary school parents and 71% of secondary school parents surveyed were asked to pay a voluntary
contribution.

As government after government fail to fully provide genuinely free education, it really is families and children that suffer.

An increasing amount of parents report having to amass debt or fall behind on essential bills in order to cover the basics of their child’s education. This experience is magnified for families who are already struggling financially or have additional family challenges.

Through our annual survey, we hear from lone parents, parents who are full-time carers, and families with either a parent or a child with a disability, who all voiced their frustration at being left to struggle with school costs. I’m pretty sure this is not the future envisioned by the political leaders who championed free education all those years ago.

It’s a fundamental injustice and it’s an incredibly short-sighted piece of public policy. And parents aren’t blind to it. They know only too well they are bridging the gap between statutory investment in education and the actual cost of sending a child to school.

And they’re tired of it. If there was one issue I would love to turn into a general election issue, it’s this one. I haven’t the slightest doubt that if parents as a whole really demanded that the government of the day take the issue of free education seriously, the political parties would take it on board immediately.

It’s cheap to do, it would be wildly popular, and all it takes is a statement of political will. And guess what? Ireland would be immensely better off for it.

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