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
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.
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.
THE POLITICAL RESPONSE: TOO LATE FOR THIS YEAR
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?