The cost of ‘free’ education
Schools in Ireland are only free in name; semi-subsidised would be a more accurate term
John O’Donovan, principal at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Kerry and chair of the ASTI Principal and Deputy Principal Committee
The latest CSO figures have shown an increase in the cost of education. Parents will not be surprised at Friday’s Consumer Price Index, which charts price rises at all education levels over the past 12 months.
Last week, it looked like the Departmentof Education and Skills (DES) was going to get tough with schools on the matter of expensive, exclusive school uniforms. However, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn issued a statement on Wednesday describing national regulations on school uniforms as “impractical”.
Impractical is an apt description for the annual splurge that is the back-to-school season. The education system is described as free, but a literal interpretation would mean sending a child to school with no uniform, no books , no food and no stationery. A free-educated child would not have to sit out of swimming, drama and school trips. They would forgo the expense of exam corrections, materials for home economics and woodwork and Transition Year.
Their parents would also not have to tough-out a stream of communications from the school looking for voluntary contributions, donations to readathons, sponsorship form, one-off payments for drumming workshops and no-uniform days and entrance fees for school concerts.
Covering all these costs for a family of three children, and throwing a sacrament or a State exam into the mix, and it quickly adds up to four figure sums.
The ‘voluntary’ contribution
Vincent de Paul, Barnardos and the National Parents’ Councils have made submissions to the Department of Education on the issue of the voluntary contribution.
Sixty per cent of primary schools charge a fee of between €50 and €250 per child per annum, according to the INTO. There is no official data available on post-primary schools, but an Asti straw poll suggest that the prevalence of voluntary contributions is even higher at this level. In at least one Dublin secondary school, the voluntary contribution is €475.
Earlier this year the primary section of the National Parents’ Council (NPC) made a submission to the joint committee on education and social protection on managing back to school costs. In preparation, they surveyed 900 parents of primary school children to find out the extent to which parents are actually supporting the education system, both directly through contributions and the purchase of materials, and indirectly through fundraising.
Two thirds of parents reported paying a voluntary contribution. Just over 40 per cent paid between €50 and €100 per year with 18 per cent quoting a figure of between €100 and €150. One in 10 were asked for between €150-€250.
A little more than half of the parents said that the request was made anonymously and without pressure to pay. For the rest, it was as good as involuntary, they were asked directly for the money.
The NPC survey also found that parents’ associations were raising considerable revenue for schools. Half of all respondents said their parents’ association raised between €2,500 and €10,000 per year and 14 per cent said they raised between €10,000 and €30,000 per year.
Áine Lynch, CEO of the NPC, says her organisation has serious concerns about the knock-on effects of both voluntary contributions and endless fundraising.
“Parents associations are so busy raising funds for schools they have little time for their main role; supporting parents. We believe voluntary contributions reframe the relationship between the parent and the school as a financial one, putting parents at a disadvantage. Schools may not see it as heavy-handed to send out letters or reminders, but they don’t know how it effects those who struggle to pay. Some parents use avoidance techniques, making it less likely that they will engage with the school on issues relating to the child’s education.”