Free schoolbooks on way under measures to be unveiled in Budget 2023

Initiative costing €47m not a once-off move and will continue over coming years, say sources

Schoolbooks will be issued free of charge to all primary pupils from September next year under measures to be announced in Tuesday’s Budget.

The €47million initiative, agreed by Government over the weekend, is not a once-off measure and will continue over the coming years, according to well-placed sources.

The average cost of schoolbooks at primary level for parents is €110, according to the Irish League of Credit Unions.

Under the new measure, parents will no longer be expected to buy books which, instead, will be purchased by schools which will receive funding from the Department of Education.

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Schools, however, will be keen to see detail of the funding announcement to check if it is sufficient to cover the full cost of pupils’ books.

Pilot scheme

Minister for Education Norma Foley is understood to have sought the measure following the successful use of a pilot scheme in about 100 Deis schools based in poorer areas.

In addition, this week’s budget is expected to include a reduction in class sizes at primary level to their lowest on record. It will mean the average ratio of one classroom teacher for every 24 pupils falls to one classroom teacher for every 23 pupils from September of next year.

There will be a corresponding drop in the pupil-teacher ratio across hundreds of Deis primary schools, where lower ratios apply because of disadvantage.

Another feature of the education budget is an increase in capitation rates for schools at primary and second level to help pay for soaring heating and lighting bills. The extent of the increase was still being finalised, said Government sources on Sunday.

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Primary school management bodies, representing about 3,300 schools, have jointly called for an immediate increase in the basic pupil capitation rate by 50 per cent, along with 10 per cent for the ancillary services grant.

At second level, the Joint Managerial Body, which represents more than 400 voluntary secondary schools, also urged the immediate index-linking of all capitation grants to allow schools to pay their bills.

The move to provide free school books at primary level will bring the Republic into line with many other jurisdictions which have similar arrangements. Northern Ireland, for example, has a long-standing book-rental scheme.

The provision of free schoolbooks in the State has long been sought by charities and Opposition parties.

Concerns mount

At present, it is up to each individual school to decide on what books are needed, though schools are advised by the department to “adopt a cost-conscious” approach.

The announcement comes as concerns mount over the rising cost of living. The Department of Social Protection has received a record number of applications for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. Latest figures show that more than 52,000 requests have been lodged for the once-off payment, which is available to means-tested families. A further 210,500 payments were made automatically.

Separately, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris is seeking a cut to the €3,000 student contribution fee and to make improvements to college grants in the forthcoming budget.

He has said several options were on the table including a reduction in the student contribution which, if approved, would apply to the current academic year. His department has sought costings on reducing it by between €250 and €1,000.

Another option is an improvement in Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland) grants, which are provided to more than 40 per cent of students in higher education.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent