An A-Z guide for going back to school

Pricewatch: In a time of Covid, the old concerns of costs and policies still remain

Every year for as long as Pricewatch can remember, we have devoted at least one page each summer to back-to-school issues. This summer, parents and schoolchildren are facing a return like no other with huge logistical obstacles still to be overcome, and uncertainty and fear everywhere. While Covid-19 has dominated almost all the back-to-school stories in recent weeks, that does not mean many of the old concerns and issues about high costs and odd policies have gone away as our A to Z illustrates.

Absence: If there was ever proof needed of the cliché that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, it can be found in the hearts and minds of children across the country who would – in the normal course of events – be dreading the very thought of returning to school next week. But today there's little of the seasonal despair as children, deprived of their schools and their friends since the middle of March, are quite literally counting the days until they can go back and fervently hoping that nothing will derail the tentative plans to reopen schools at the end of the month.

Barnardos: For many years now, the starting gun for the back-to-school season has been started by the children's charity with the publication of surveys outlining the costs associated with Ireland's supposedly free education system. Each year it outlines how hard pressed parents can expect to be and highlight ways the burden could be eased. Generally speaking the charity's ideas fall on deaf ears in the corridors of power and the costs stay the same or increase slightly. And so it is again this year. While some of the focus of the annual survey shifted towards attitudes to returning to school in time of Covid – with as many as one in five parents reluctant to send their kids back at all – the charity also shines a spotlight on costs and have found that back-to-school costs for this year are on average €330-€365 for primary school students and €735 for post-primary students. Overall costs at primary level are slightly down on last year while costs at post-primary level remain unchanged.

Crests: We understand – sort of – the desire of some schools to have their own crests but are unconvinced those crests need to be artfully embroidered onto jumpers, coats and tracksuits. It would make more sense to make crests available via patches that could be sewn or ironed on to clothes. The effect would be the same but the cost to parents would fall dramatically. If there are 800,000 children heading back to school this month and just 10 per cent of them moved from crested jumpers to generic ones, the collective savings for parents would be almost €3 million. And that is only on jumpers.


Driving: Do you need to chauffeur your kids to school? If you live within 1-2km of the school gates, you and them could probably benefit from the daily walk. And if you live 5km or so, perhaps you could cycle? Not only would it be better for you, it would be better for everyone. When our roads are clear of school-bound traffic, it all flows like a dream. It might require more organisation and you might have to get out of bed a bit earlier, but wouldn't it be worth it? Specially now when buses have become such fraught places.

E-books: We still don't know if e-readers and tablets are in the best interests of children. While they are interactive and light and have been adopted by many schools, they come at a cost. Parents won't have much change out of €700, in some instances. There are also serious question marks as to their educational merit. A report published last year by the consulting firm McKinsey on the performance of 15-year-old students across Europe and based on an analysis of data gathered as part of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) found that adding one teacher computer per classroom had more than 10 times the impact on improving educational performance than adding a student computer to that same classroom. Giving students access to e-books, tablets, computers and laptops inside the classroom was associated with significantly lower educational performance in the review. But there are conflicting views.

Free for all: While the run-up to the start of the school year is very different in 2020, it is clear, then, that costs remain the same. We all know that education in Ireland is supposed to be free but as a result of generations of governmental inaction and ineptitude and under-resourcing, the costs can be horrendous. More than half a century ago the then minister for education Donogh O'Malley announced that free education for all the State's children was to become a constitutional obligation. Since then, Irish parents have spent more than €20 billion on educating their young, as O'Malley's vision of free schooling quickly got lost in the mists of time. And parents have picked up the tab. Parents of children in second level can expect to spend in excess of €200 with uniforms and clothes and school trips costing the same again. At primary school level extracurricular activities will be the biggest spend at about €180 with uniforms and clothing costing about €150 with books costing marginally less.

Gaeilge: Undoubtedly the most controversial of the core subjects studied by Irish children. For the sake of full disclosure, Pricewatch had a long and difficult relationship with the subject in the 1970s and 1980s and has spent decades questioning the wisdom of forcing students to understand the módh coinníollach or the tuiseal ginideach before allowing them go to university to study English. But, for the sake of balance, we have to point out that there are many, many people who were enriched by learning the mother tongue and continue to be enriched by it through adulthood. We are also aware that the curriculum and the standard of teaching of the subject have improved greatly in recent decades.

Homework: Irish schools are obsessed with homework despite the fact that, by any measure, it is a cruel punishment of questionable educational merit. Take Finland. It might be cold and dark and depressed but it has one of the best education systems in the world. And can homework take the credit? No. Finnish secondary school students do less than 30 minutes' homework a day – and many do none at all. So maybe Ireland should stop blighting its children's lives by making them do ridiculous amounts of homework when they should be outside playing, or inside playing, or reading books. They will have plenty of time to be chained to a desk and a laptop when they get older.

Inter Cert: If you still call it this, you are revealing a whole lot about your age like when you recall your grades using only letters.

Jumpers: Wait a minute, where's me jumper but, more importantly, why does it cost so much? As we have said earlier, a jumper with a bespoke crest can cost as much as €40 while a generic one can be bought for less than a tenner. If just 30,000 – fewer than one-third – of school-age children have to buy such a jumper, the collective savings of a switch to generic jumpers each year would be just under €1 million.

Kit: Along with the uniforms and the books and all the extracurricular activities, parents will also have to stump up for sports gear for children and it doesn't matter what sport a child plays, none of the stuff they will need comes cheap. It will be worth keeping an eye on the middle aisles in the German discounters in the days ahead and this year there will always be Decathlon – at least for those within striking distance of Dublin.

Leaving: This is a year like no other and students who were due to do the Leaving Certificate experienced more stress and upheaval than most. There was the will it happen, won't it happen palaver of the early stages of the crisis. Then the poor kids were told they would have to sit the exams in late July and early August. Then they were told the exams would not happen and they would have to register to receive calculated or predicted grades or wait until the winter to sit exams which would mean they would not be able to apply for third-level places until next year. On the plus side, the class of 2020 will be spared all the sitting the Leaving unprepared or in a state of undress nightmares that have afflicted the rest of us for the guts of 100 years.

Masks: The days of having to learn ventriloquy if you wanted to communicate with classmates undetected by your teachers are gone, at least for now and at least in secondary schools. Under guidance from the Department of Education, students and primary and post-primary teachers will have to wear face coverings in class when a physical distance of 2m cannot be maintained. The face coverings worn will have to be reusable and washed daily, says the guidance.

Nerves: Back-to-school time tends to be a nervous time for students but the nervousness this year will be almost universal as fears about the impact on the spread of the virus persist. There has been some slight good news in recent days with a report from the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) suggesting that reopening of schools in many EU countries has not led to significant increases in community transmission of Covid-19. Child-to-child transmission of the disease in schools is uncommon and schools are unlikely to be more effective environments for propagating the virus than other work or leisure settings with similar densities of people, the report states. Mind you, the experience in Israel is a concern. The country reopened its schools in late May and, within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world. The virus spread to students' homes and other schools and neighbourhoods. The nerves, then, are entirely understandable.

Overweight: Not the kids, the bags. The weight of the books is a real issue for Irish children. A study published a couple of years ago found that almost one in three primary school children's bags weigh so much that the kids struggle to walk to school with the things on their backs. While we have sympathy for the children, we have as much sympathy for the parents who, more often than not, end up carrying the damn things.

Points: On one level, the points system we have for allocating college places is cruel and heartless. And on another it is impartial and entirely egalitarian. We are conflicted on this one, to be honest.

Quality control: Who do you think is in control of Irish schools? The Department of Education right, because it pays the bills? Wrong answer. The reality is most of our schools operate like mini-fiefdoms and even though they are almost entirely funded by the tax payer, boards of management call the shots. This may (may???) sound daft but by ceding control of the schools to boards of management generations ago, it meant the Department of Education did not have to deal with staffing issues – other than paying wages – or ongoing maintenance and the other fiddly (but incredible important) issues that schools have to manage. We'd like to describe that as a win win but it is more of a win, lose, lose. The Department of Education wins while the parents and the schools lose.

Rental schemes: They are brilliant. But by no means universal. If schoolbook rental schemes were mandatory, parents could save a fortune and the system is simple. At the beginning of the school year, parents pay a rental fee to the school and the child gets their textbooks free. At the end of the year, if the books are returned unblemished, much of the fee can be returned. It is cheap and simple and would save parents hundreds of millions of euro over the next few years if the State stepped in and managed the scheme like they do in Northern Ireland. And the savings would just keep coming for ever. Despite the fact that such schemes make so much sense, many primary-school parents do not have access to a book rental scheme and even more parents of children in secondary school have no access.

Stress: Say what you like about the summer months but they take much of the hassle out of the typical day. For two or three months, the requirement to get children dressed, washed, fed and sent out the door with homework, a packed lunch, a recorder, a hurl and gym gear is suspended.

Teachers: When the lockdown happened, many parents, including Pricewatch, assumed that homeschooling would be a breeze. And for the first 20 minutes as we drew up plans to teach our children Chinese and astrophysics along with all the core subjects while ensuring they did 90 minutes of professional athlete standard exercises every morning, it was. Then we realised just how hard teaching is and how valuable our teachers are and how much we need them. Luckily they were there – in a virtual sense – and did all they could to make the lives of our little people better. They should all get a raise.

Uniforms: They always seem pricey but there are ways to save money. Aldi and Lidl sell generic polo shirts and white shirts for about €2 for a two-pack while school-going trousers and skirts cost much the same with pinafores costing about €8 and shoes selling for much the same. Marks & Spencer also sells good value uniforms as do Dunnes and Tesco. Sadly, these cheap uniforms are not available to many kids as there are still schools that insist on children coming to school in crested uniforms bought in specialist shops. These uniforms tend to be considerably more expensive than the generic options bought in mainstream retailers. Advocates say the quality of the clothes bought through such channels is higher and that may well be the case but it is hard to argue in favour of spending €40 on a green jumper when a similarly green jumper is selling elsewhere for €4.

Voluntary contributions: In the normal world, the word "voluntary" is defined as something which is "done, made, brought about, undertaken of one's own accord or by free choice". In the world of the Irish school, it means something quite different and many schools continue to put huge pressure on parents to pay up, with constant reminders sent via their children. Some even go as far as to identify, in front of their classmates, the children of parents who have not paid the contribution. In many cases, the blame rests with the State. For too long it has deprived too many schools of the money they need to operate, leaving them with no option but to raise money from other sources.

Workbooks: These have been described as the work of the devil. They are used once and discarded. They are a waste of money, costing at least €10 a pop and are very bad for the environment. If the past few months of remote learning have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that children do not need workbooks to learn.

X: No, we still can't think of anything meaningful that starts with the letter x and we refuse to shoe-horn something ridiculous like Xerox just to fill the gap, sorry!

Yes!: At the time of writing, it does look like schools will be reopening starting next week and everyone – children, parents and society at large – will have to welcome that.

Zeds: It won't be long before bedtimes return to normal and the grand stretches in the evening that we love so much will be replaced by nights drawing in and then children will go to bed earlier. But they will also have to get up earlier and so will you.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast