Insufficient funding has been set aside to meet the Government’s pledge to provide free schoolbooks to all primary school pupils from next year, publishers and booksellers believe.
Minister for Education Norma Foley announced funding of €47 million in September’s budget to provide free schoolbooks and “related classroom resources” to all 540,000 pupils attending primary schools recognised by her department. However, education publishers and independent booksellers believe there is a lack of detail and inadequate resources to fulfil this pledge and are planning to join forces to highlight these issues in the new year.
Some in the sector estimate the allocated funding is in the region of between €80-90 per pupil, yet research by the Irish League of Credit Unions puts the average cost of books at primary level at €110.
“We’re in the dark over what this funding is supposed to cover: books, workbooks, stationery, craft materials? No one is clear on any of the detail on this,” said one publishing source. “It is difficult to see how the funding is sufficient, especially in the absence of any detail...Will schools have to make up the difference in the form of voluntary contributions for parents?”
A books industry source said they have unsuccessfully sought meetings to discuss these issues and to establish whether procurement rules will force schools to bulk-buy books rather than go to local booksellers. “It is frustrating – the only response we’ve got so far is a copy and paste response which has told us nothing,” the source said.
In a statement a spokesman for the department said more than €50 million is available to provide free books to primary school students in recognised primary schools from next September. He said the measure will “eliminate the cost to families for all schoolbooks, including workbooks” and that the department would “engage with the education partners to roll out the measure in time” for the next school year.
The spokesman said the overall amount provided is based on research done by the department, including a free schoolbooks pilot scheme at primary level that has been in place for the past two school years. He said guidance on the procurement of books will be developed as part of further engagement with schools, parent and management bodies and other stakeholders. “This will ensure that value for money is achieved, and that schools will be supported to implement the scheme in a way that has the best learning outcomes for pupils,” the spokesman said.
Ms Foley has said schools will have autonomy on how they wish to purchase books, whether that is from a local bookshop or otherwise.
Meanwhile, internal records indicate that a “smaller package” on free books than that originally sought was the subject of discussion at Government level in the days before the budget.
A record released to The Irish Times shows speaking points prepared for Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath for a meeting four days before the budget with Ms Foley and officials.
The document states that “in relation to schoolbooks, Minister [Foley] will have to consider a smaller package within the space available, building on the pilot that provides for those in need of support”. The details of the funding package and other options were redacted in the document released under the Freedom of Information Act