Children across the country are called out in class due to non-payment of voluntary contribution charges at post-primary level, a new report by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) has revealed.
Numerous necessary items, such as lockers and journals are withheld from students whose parents do not pay the charges, which adds to stigma – said the report, titled Closing the Gap – What is needed to end Voluntary Contributions in Post-Primary Schools.
Almost 1,500 parents (1,447) responded to the anonymous online survey, and 87 per cent of those said that they have had to cut back or delay spending on other areas of the family budget to pay the post-primary voluntary contribution charge.
Examples provided included food, energy and domestic bills, medical appointment and medication and social activities. The research also showed examples of people borrowing money from family, credit unions and other sources of loans, including approaching SVP for support.
One parent who responded said that they are a cancer patient and had to stop getting their medication to pay the fees.
Just 14 per cent of respondents reported that their school did not request a voluntary contribution. Furthermore, 80 per cent of parents who receive a request said that voluntary contributions were not clearly communicated as being optional.
One parent who responded said that they challenged the payment last year and received phone calls and notes home from the school and were told that the contribution was not voluntary.
“As a single parent I can barely afford to pay weekly essential bills. This just took two weeks food from my household,” they said.
Another parent said that their child did not receive a homework notebook if the contribution was not paid: “Teacher would ask ‘where’s your notebook’, so all the class would know fees weren’t paid. Very embarrassing for child.”
Another school wrote on the blackboard who had paid the voluntary contribution and who had not, so other children can see, said one parent, who said that she and her husband cut back on food for themselves, even though they have diabetes, to cover the cost.
“€100 is a big part of our monthly income; it left us the parents with just bread for three days, we had food for the other children. They were unaware we didn’t have food to eat,” another respondent said.
The Department of Education guidance to schools states that “voluntary contributions may be sought from parents, provided it is made clear to parents that there is no compulsion to pay and that a child’s place in the school or continued enrolment is not dependent on a willingness to make a contribution”.
Voluntary contributions range from €30 to €550 per child, with an average of €140 across all school types, the report, seen by The Irish Times, said.
The principals of six post-primary schools were also interviewed as part of the report, and all of these schools expressed concern over the level of funding they received.
These concerns included reliance on voluntary contributions for the provision of essential resources such as books, classroom materials, school journals, insurance, stationary, printing and lockers.
One principal said that “voluntary contributions are a symptom of the underfunding of the education system. We use the payment to cover the cost of running the school on a day-to-day basis”.
Niamh Dalziel, research and policy offer with SVP, said that “during the period of austerity, the capitation grant, which covers the basic running costs for schools per pupil, was cut from €345 to €309. In 2020, the rate is €316. To maintain the real 2010 value adjusted for inflation to 2023, the grant should be €422 or 33 per cent higher.”
SVP national president Rose McGowan said that voluntary contributions can end by investing in the education system through adequate capitation and the provision of free schoolbooks at secondary school.
“This must be part of a wider effort from educational leadership to ensure education policy and practice is inclusive and meeting the needs and rights of students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds,” she said.
The charity also shared six recommendations following the responses received.
These include the introduction and monitoring of regulation on voluntary contributions, increasing the capitation grants to ensure all schools can meet running costs, and the removal of all financial barriers to participating in education.
They also include policy proofing of all policies within schools and across the education system, the establishment of a procurement support service for schools and providing better data and transparency on educational funding expenditure.