Conor Pope’s A to Z of back to school

The holidays are nearly over, so it’s time to fret about bags, bedtimes, books – and ‘voluntary’ contributions

According to a report published this year by the National Parents’ Council, almost one-third of parents of primary school pupils said their children could not walk to school because of the weight of their schoolbags. Photograph: iStock

August This is the most stressful month of the year for many parents and back to school cost are all to blame. It is 50 years since the then minister for education Donogh O'Malley announced that the provision of free education for all the State's children was to become a constitutional obligation. Since then, Irish parents have cumulatively spent more than €20 billion on educating their offspring, as O'Malley's vision of free schooling turned out to be rather pricey. According to the Irish League of Credit Unions, the average spend per primary school child this year is €1,048 while the cost of sending a secondary school child is €1,401.

Barnardos Pity the children's charity. Every year for what seems like forever it has reminded successive governments and successive ministers for education that there is that constitutional obligation to provide free education to the State's children. It has also signposted all the ways that this could be achieved and even done the maths and said that primary and secondary level education could be made entirely free for parents, at a cost of €103m. And yet nothing ever seems to get done. Or, at least, the process is so incremental as to be non-existent.

Barnardo's own annual School Costs survey, which was published this month, found that parents "are bearing the brunt of an underfunded education system". When the cost of clothes, shoes, books, stationery, classroom resources and the voluntary contribution were totted up, the cost of sending a child into senior infants was put at €355. The cost for a child in fourth class was €395 while the cost of sending a child into secondary school was €800.

Circular In April an important-sounding circular was sent to all schools by the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton. It was supposed to make everything better by making all school authorities adopt "principles of cost-effective practice". Among the measures schools were directed to introduce were generic uniforms; mandatory book-rental schemes; a ban on workbooks; iron-on or sew-on crests; and the provision of lists of all items parents would have to buy for their children with indications of the likely costs at the best value stores. Did the circular make much difference? Parents don't seem to think so and they are set to spend as much – if not more – this year than they did last year.


Driving Do you need to drive your children to school? If you live within one or two kilometres of the school gates both you and they could probably benefit from the walk each day. And if you live 5km or so, perhaps you could cycle? Not only would it be better for you and your family, it would be better for everyone. When our schools are off our roads are clear of school-bound traffic it 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?

Ebook readers These are the future, right? They are interactive and light – but they come at a cost. Parents won't have much change out of €700, in some instances. There are some schools falling over themselves to make tablets mandatory but there hasn't been much consideration of their educational merit.

Gaeilge Is there any point in studying Irish if you don't want to? Does a child planning to study electronic engineering or philosophy or Latin really need to get their head around the módh coinníollach and tuiseal ginideach before they are allowed to university? Should we not reduce the amount of time given over to the módh coinníollach and tuiseal ginideach in favour of things that the adults of the future might actually use? These are questions that we might be asking if we wanted the rage of the Gaeilgeoirí to fall upon us. We don't, so we won't.

Homework Finland has one of the best education systems in the world, yet secondary school students there do less than 30 minutes' homework a day - and many do none at all. Maybe we could learn something from the Finns? And maybe we should stop blighting our 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. And do you remember when 6 points was enough to get into Arts in UCD? You do? Gosh, you really are old.

Jumpers We understand the desire schools have to have their own crests. We really do. But does that crest have to be embroidered onto the jumpers and the coats and the tracksuits? Would it not be better if all schools with a crest made them available via a patch that could be sewn or ironed on to a jumper or coat or whatever? The impact would be exactly the same yet the cost to parents would fall dramatically. A jumper with a bespoke crest can cost as much as €40. A generic one can be bought for less than a tenner. If just 30,000 children – 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 €1m.

Kudos School can be tough: a little encouragement goes a long way.

Leaving Certificate results Spare a thought for the tens of thousands of teenagers who are waiting for their results to arrive on Wednesday. There will be good news for many and not such good news for some. But if Pricewatch could give one piece of advice to anyone waiting to hear how they got on, it would be don't worry too much about it. Despite what you think now, the Leaving Certificate will not define you and in a few short years, the nightmares will pass and you will be able to join the group of hypocrites – us included – who give out about the amount of drink consumed by those celebrating/mourning their results while forgetting that back in the day they did exactly the same thing.

Monday mornings 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.

Nature Far too many children spend far too much time inside over the course of the school day. There should be more nature walks, more nature tables and – generally speaking – more nature in all our schools.

Obesity Childhood obesity is a depressing reality in Ireland, as in many developed countries. But don't make the mistake of thinking the problem is uniquely related to the type, quality and volume of what our children eat. Skipping breakfast and irregular sleep patterns are also key reasons children may become dangerously overweight, according to a study published last year by academics from University College London. It challenged the widely held view that soaring childhood obesity rates are caused solely by overeating, and said lifestyle factors and the environment a child is brought up in also play significant roles in their chances of becoming obese.

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.

Question time: Asking what school you go to means different things in different parts of the country. When the question is asked in Dublin, people are often trying to establish your social class and whether you went to one of the fancy fee-paying schools dotted around the capital. In Northern Ireland, the question can mean "What religion are you?" And in places like Galway, where there are no fee-paying schools, it is just old-school nosiness.

Rental schemes The market for school books in the State is worth more than €50 million each year. While the Department of Education covers the costs in disadvantaged schools, parents are expected to pay the rest: after uniforms, books are the most expensive item for Irish parents. People with kids in primary school will a little less than €100 on them, while secondary school parents will spend more than €200. This money does not have to be spent – and if schoolbook rental schemes were mandatory, it would not be spent. The system is simple. At beginning of the school year parents pay a rental fee to the school and the child gets their textbooks for 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 Irish parents hundreds of millions of euro over the next few years. And the savings would just keep coming for ever. Despite the fact that such schemes makes so much sense only 71 per cent of primary-school parents have access to a book rental scheme and a quite ridiculous 37 per cent of parents of children in secondary school.

Schoolbags Do they really have to be as heavy as they are? According to a most alarming report published this year by the National Parents' Council, almost one-third of parents of primary-school pupils said their children could not walk to school because of the weight of their schoolbags. The council collected more than 3,000 responses in just four days and described bag weights as the single biggest issue among primary-school parents. It is even worse in secondary school.

Teachers For the most part, teachers deserve all our respect for doing an important job without too much fuss – except at Easter, when the gloves come off and the loudhailers come out. There is a lot to moan about when it comes to returning to school, but the quality of our education system is still good, and the tens of thousands of children who go through it have a more rounded education than many of their peers around the world. And teachers play a large part in that.

Unions With the unions representing teachers not entirely keen on the new public service agreement there might be a degree of industrial unrest across the education sector this autumn. So, that is something to look forward to.

Voluntary contributions Generally speaking, the word "voluntary" is defined as something which is "done, made, brought about, undertaken of one's own accord or by free choice". This is a definition many of the State's schools would do well to learn off by heart, as they seem to have developed something of a blind spot when it comes to this word. Some schools 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.

Workbooks These books – once described as the work of the devil – are used once and discarded. They may not be the devil's work – he has his hands full doing really evil things, we suspect – but they are still a waste of money, costing at least €10 a pop. They are also bad for the environment.

X This is the letter Pricewatch always struggles with. We could go with Xerox and make the point that if workbooks were be phased out in favour of old-school copybooks or photocopied sheets we'd all probably be better off. Or we could just hold our hands up and say there's really no X in the list.

Yes!!! The summer holidays are nearly over which means those parents who work won't have to juggle childcare with the job quite as often.

Zzzzzzz We struggle with Z too, to be honest. So we'll stick with this. It won't be long 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. But if children go to bed earlier they will most likely get up earlier – and make you get up too.