Devil’s workbooks are only the start

The staggering cost of equipping a child for school has been the subject of much debate, but little has been done to reduce it, writes Conor Pope

Lyn Crowley (left) of St Andrew's College and Lucy Rice of Loreto abbey, Dalkey. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Lyn Crowley (left) of St Andrew's College and Lucy Rice of Loreto abbey, Dalkey. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


In the half-century since Donogh O’Malley introduced free education for all the State’s children, Irish parents have cumulatively spent more than €20 billion on educating their offspring. The free school system we were promised back in 1966 has turned out to be rather pricey.

Every year, a raft of studies points to the high costs of uniforms, books and extra-curricular activities. Among the most reliable is the annual School Cost Survey from Barnardos. It puts the average cost of school for a child in senior infants at about €350, climbing to closer to €400 for children in 4th class and to more than €750 for a child going into 1st year in secondary school. School books and uniforms incur the highest cost, while voluntary contributions, school transport and extra curricular activities also weigh heavily on parents’ budgets.

The National Consumer Agency’s (NCA) estimate is even higher, especially for those with younger children. Its research shows parents estimate the back-to-school costs at €487 per child attending primary school and €620 for those in secondary.

Here’s a breakdown of the NCA figures: for primary-school children, uniforms, including shoes for a year, cost €190.60, books and stationery €154, and gym gear €71.49. Accessories such as lunchboxes and school bags add €70.70. Children in secondary school, meanwhile, will need €206.90 for uniforms and shoes, while school books and stationery will set parents back €250.50. For gym gear add €85.83 and accessories €76.59.

Of course, there are ways to cut costs, although many require buy-in from schools, which is rarely forthcoming.

Workbooks have been described as “the work of the devil” by Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos. While that may be a little strong, these use-once-then-discard books – at a tenner a pop minimum – are by any measure a waste of money, as well as being bad for the environment.

Book-rental schemes would save parents a fortune, about €40 million. All told, the school-book market in the Republic is worth €55 million a year. The Department of Education stumps up €15 million for books distributed in disadvantaged schools, and parents pay the rest. The scenario is different in the North. There, schools are given a budget to supply books to children, usually on loan. Schools choose the titles, with a focus on value for money. In the Republic, schools make the choices while parents pay the price.

There has been a partial shift recently, and the main educational publishers have now agreed to a code of practice designed to reduce the cost of textbooks for parents and schools. They have made a commitment to maintain new editions of textbooks in print for a minimum of six years, to cooperate with individual schools to develop book-rental schemes, and to offer significant discounts for schools to purchase books in bulk for book-rental schemes.

Almost two-thirds of schools requiring uniforms want them to carry a crest, which means many of the basics cannot be bought in bargain-basement retailers. A crested uniform made up of a jumper, trousers or skirt, tracksuit and coat will cost well in excess of €100 when sourced in an official school supplier. And that doesn’t include shoes or trainers.

This summer, Aldi was selling a €6.50 uniform as part of its back-to-school range. The bargain uniform featured a €2 pair of trousers or pleated skirt, two polo shirts for €1.99 and a round-neck sweater at €2.49. The uniforms were pretty well made and came in a range of colours including grey, black, red and navy.

Dunnes Stores, Penneys and Tesco all have uniforms at very low prices; while Marks & Spencer’s prices may be higher, the quality is, arguably, better, so they may work out better value in the long run. Even if schools do insist on crested jumpers, the other stuff can be bought elsewhere at a much lower cost.

Voluntary contributions
For years, the National Parents Council has campaigned to bring the cost of education down and has waged an entirely unsuccessful war against voluntary contributions, which it describes as “a financial nightmare”. It has called on schools to set up funding committees to look at alternatives to simply passing on the cost of funding shortfalls to parents and while some are proactive, others appear at ease with the status quo.

Two years ago, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said he was “exploring” schemes to cut the cost of books by reducing the practice of editions being revised on a regular basis. He also said he was looking at the possibility of eliminating the requirement for parents to buy uniforms from specific shops to permit the purchase of generic uniforms, which can be bought for a fraction of the cost. (Some 90 per cent of parents want to be able to buy the crest and uniform separately, a 2011 NCA survey found.)

At that time, Quinn told the Dáil if schools “confined themselves to selling their badge or emblem, we could seriously address the cost issues” but despite the Minister’s comments, very little has been done to soften the financial blow for parents.

Earlier this summer, an Oireachtas committee made another attempt to start a debate on the high cost of free schooling. The Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection called for schools to be prohibited from insisting students wear expensive crested uniforms. It called for the introduction of a universal schoolbook rental scheme and said workbooks should be banned while voluntary contributions should be “greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited”.

It warned that children whose parents struggle to pay for extra-curricular activities or voluntary contributions were being stigmatised, and said the relationship between parents and their child’s school “should be educational, not financial”.

The report, which was compiled by Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, also criticised school patrons for what it said was “a vacuum of leadership”.

O’Riordan expressed disquiet that many had told the committee that school costs were not their responsibility. “That is not good enough. If you are patron of a school then at the very least you have to have an opinion on the issue.” He said patrons possessed the “moral authority” to direct schools away from costly uniforms and voluntary contributions. He also accused some schools of being “quite aggressive” when collecting so-called voluntary contributions and said in many schools the contributions were mandatory and unregulated.

He accepted part of the problem was reduced funding from the Department of Education and said there had been “absence of leadership” from the department which was more focused on producing “guidelines not leadership”.

O’Riordan said the committee would follow up the report by asking all those who had made submissions to formally respond by September. Too late for this year. But maybe next?

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