Crested uniforms, iPads and ‘amenity fees’: The true cost of free schooling

Sandra calculates that back to school costs for her daughter will come to €1,367 this summer

Sandra Ní Dhubhda is listing the back to school costs she is expecting to pay this year for her daughter, who is due to start fifth year at a Dublin secondary school in September.

“Her book, stationery and art supplies bill will come to €410. The ‘essential education cost’, which covers things like photocopying and insurance, is €150, and that’s compulsory. The voluntary contribution, which is thankfully not enforced by the school, is €490.”

Ní Dhubhda is hoping to avoid replacing her daughter’s school uniform this year. “Everything is crested, and has to be ordered from a specialist uniform supplier. If I did have to replace it, the skirt would be €50; her jumper is €35; plus €8 for each shirt. Jackets are around €65; tracksuit bottoms are €50; sports tops are €25.”

All told, the cost of educating her daughter – including uniform costs, but before extracurricular activities – is €1,367 per year, which represents a significant chunk out of her teacher’s salary.


According a survey published last week, this figure is far from extraordinary.

Parents of secondary-school pupils are paying €1,399 in school costs

The Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) conducts an annual survey of school costs, which includes things like extracurricular activities, after-school care, trips, lunches and gym gear. The 2019 survey, which was published last week, found parents of secondary-school pupils are paying €1,399 in school costs. The top expense is books, setting them back €220. It’s not much better at primary school, with parents paying an average of €949 per pupil.

“Effectively, from our point of view, our so-called ‘free’ education system is not really free at all,” says Paul Rolston, a director of the National Parents Council Post Primary (NPCPP). “It very rapidly adds up to an astronomical amount of money if you have two or three kids in secondary school.”

Ní Dhubhda will also fork out €1,000 this year for her daughter’s extracurricular activities of hockey and drama, which she says, are worth it because of the benefits to her health and confidence. “And as she’s doing honours maths, so I need to factor in Maths grinds, which will be another €800.”

Back-to-school costs place a huge stress and a tremendous burden on parents"

Ní Dhubhda points out that schools rely on parents helping to make up the shortfall from departmental funding. “Back-to-school costs place a huge stress and a tremendous burden on parents, particularly parents on low incomes, precarious contracts, or any form of social welfare.

“What I would like to see happen is the government doing a full analysis of the total cost of running the school and working out what funding is required, so that the voluntary contribution is no longer required.”

In June, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills published a report on school costs. It found that funding needs to be incrementally increased to schools so that “all children have access to a high-quality, free and inclusive primary and secondary education”, and recommended capitation grants be restored to 2010 levels, as promised in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019.

One of the issues highlighted by organisations like the NPCPP and One Family is the lack of transparency and consistency in the charges levied on parents by schools, making it difficult to calculate average back-to-school costs.

The average voluntary contribution for primary school pupils is €88, while at secondary level, it’s €140, the ILCU data shows. But within those averages, there are huge individual variations. Parents of primary and secondary school children who spoke to the Irish Times this week reported requests from contributions ranging from €50 for two primary level children, to €300 per child in another primary school.

The Joint Committee on Education and Skills found that, "despite reassurances by the Department of Education and Skills that this contribution is a voluntary payment and there should be no pressure on parents to pay … survey results show that is not the reality on the ground."

There's huge variation in the amounts sought, and there's a lack of transparency in what it goes towards"

Some schools also require parents to pay additional non-voluntary costs, such as “administration”, “amenity” or “registration” fees. One parent of two children in a south Dublin, non-fee paying secondary, for example, has been asked to contribute €500 in voluntary contributions per family, along with amenity charges of €200 per child, to cover Parents Council membership, stationery, postage and other material.

“There’s huge variation in the amounts sought, and there’s a lack of transparency in what it goes towards,” says Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family. “We would like the Department to issue a policy framework to schools around these contributions, and what’s appropriate if people can’t pay them.

“Back to school is one of the really big financial outlays that people often cannot pay, even if they want to. For people on social welfare, there is no way they would have the kind of money being sought.”

Of 882 parents surveyed by the ILCU, 78 per cent said back to school was a “financial burden”, and 36 per cent are getting into debt over back-to-school costs. 13 per cent are using their credit card to pay back-to-school bills, and one in four is turning to a moneylender.

The government needs to step up to the mark if they're serious about free education"

“One in three moneylenders charge over 180 per cent interest, and the highest charge 288 per cent interest,” says Paul Bailey, ILCU head of communications.

“What we are concerned about is that costs are only going one way at secondary level ... The government needs to step up to the mark if they’re serious about free education.”

Another finding of the ILCU survey was that four in five secondary school parents feel their schools do not do enough to keep costs down. The NPCPP urges schools to ease the burden on parents, by permitting non-crested uniforms and, where possible, facilitating them to spread contributions and fees out over the whole year.

Rolston points out that only one in three secondary schools operates a book rental scheme, despite an average book bill of €220 per child per year at secondary.

If parents are unable or unwilling to pay the voluntary contribution, there should be no repercussions for the students, he adds. “Things like lockers, and even participation in transition year, have been withheld from students whose parents are unable to pay the so-called voluntary contribution. That, in our view, is scandalous.”

A relatively recent, significant expense on parents is the introduction of iPads and tablets into the classroom. Former teacher Nicola Kearns faces the prospect of having to buy her third iPad this year, at a cost of €589. The cost depends on the “bundle” of software, books, and extras like insurance and protective covers chosen by the school, and supplied through third-party suppliers like Wriggle, which manages up to 40,000 devices for students in 100 schools, she says.

“By September, if this goes ahead, I will have paid out €1600 in three years” on iPads, Kearns says. She is one of the parents campaigning against the use of iPads in Ratoath College, the school attended by her three children.

Parents of incoming first years at another Dublin school are paying €878 per device, which includes extras like a Logitech iPad crayon at €52.84, a Techair heavy duty case at €36.58, plus “digital technology training support” at €81.

“I can’t understand how silent parents are being on this,” says Kearns. “This is a massive departure in our way of teaching and learning.”

Costs aside, she is dubious about the benefits of iPads in the classroom. “It’s a giant technological experiment, our kids are the guinea pigs, and parents are being asked to foot the bill.”

Back to school

The numbers

Price to parents of iPad for incoming first years at one Dublin school

Voluntary contribution at Sandra Ní Dhubhda's daughter's school

Sandra's back-to-school costs for her daughter in 2019

Average voluntary contribution for secondary-school pupils

Average voluntary contribution for primary-school pupils

Average annual book bill of a child at secondary school

"Amenity charges" per child at a non-fee paying Dublin secondary school, to cover parents council membership, stationery, postage and other material