Minister must try harder - Back-to-school costs

AS night follows day, this is the time of year that gnawing worries about the cost of children going back to school invariably spoil the summer holidays, such as they are, of cash-strapped parents. 

The appalling spectre of having to borrow from unscrupulous moneylenders begins to eat into the minds of people already weighed down by debt, knowing they will have to pay through the nose to meet exorbitant interest rates.

Worryingly the Irish League of Credit Unions found that between the cost of uniforms and books, parents will spend around €400 for each child this September. With austerity still grinding many vulnerable people down, despite all the talk about economic recovery, that figure represents a lot of money for families struggling to put food on the table. Researchers estimate that almost one in three parents usually end in debt simply to cover back-to-school costs of around €166 for primary school children and some €258 for students at secondary level.

On top of that, most schools now find it harder to fund their running costs as a result of Department of Education cuts to non-pay grants. Typically primary schools have seen the amount paid for each pupil reduced from €200 to €170 in the past four years. The problem is that day-to-day running costs for the likes of energy, insurance, and other essential payments have continued to rise.

In a domino effect, school boards have increasingly turned to parents for a financial dig out. The governors could help parents by giving them greater autonomy over the choice of schoolbooks and uniforms before pupils return to class in September.

Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan told the Dáil yesterday she intends to introduce a form of charter to empower parents and students to pressurise school management on some issues. The basic idea is that parents should alert the department if schools insist on them paying contributions that are supposed to be voluntary. It is hard to see how this will work. In a real sense it looks like a belated attempt by Ms O’Sullivan to deflect mounting criticism of the failure of this Government to support the needy. In other words it’s a cop-out because Ms O’Sullivan is effectively trying to put an onus on families and the community to do her job for her.

For several years now, successive ministers have failed to prevent publishers from introducing small changes in schoolbooks, thus making them redundant and forcing pupils to buy new ones. Another ruse is to incorporate spaces for children to write in, which means the books can’t be passed on. Ms O’ Sullivan has rejected claims she can compel school boards to lower the cost of what parents have to pay for uniforms.

Knowing that education is vital if their children are to have any chance of carving out a career for themselves, these are worrying times for parents. Given the burden facing struggling families, the Coalition has a moral duty to implement a more meaningful solution to keep costs down than a book rental scheme.

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