Dear Minister, why is school so expensive? Love Pricewatch

Since free education was introduced in the 1960s, Irish parents have spent more than €20 billion putting their children through school

Minster for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minster for Education Richard Bruton. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Dear Richard,

Pricewatch hopes your new job as Minister for Education is going well and you are enjoying your summer break – a break that, incidentally, is a week longer than the summer holidays primary school children receive. Isn’t that mad?

Anyway, it’s already August and we need to talk about back-to-school costs now, as it will be too late when you return back to Leinster House in the autumn. Actually, it’s probably too late already.

This is the first year you will have to pay heed to stories about parents shelling out big money to send their kids back to school. You might be still telling yourself that our education system is free, so there is nothing to be worried about. After all, next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Donogh O’Malley’s introduction of free education for all the State’s children.

As minister for education from 1966- 1968, O’Malley promised free schooling up to the Inter Cert (as it was called back in the day) and free school buses for all rural children (can you imagine that now?). As a result, we still remember O’Malley today.

Still, despite his best efforts, it has never really worked out as O’Malley would have liked. Since the “free” promise was made, Irish parents have cumulatively spent well over €20 billion (yes, billion) on educating their offspring in non-fee-paying schools.

A lot of people are very worried right now, as they are every year around this time. According to a recent survey by the people in the Irish League of Credit Unions, the average cost of sending a child to a State-run primary school is just under €1,000, while the cost of a “free” education in any of the State’s secondary schools is almost €1,500. Those numbers have climbed every year since 2012.

And where is the money spent? It goes on uniforms, books, lunches, extracurricular activities, school trips, “voluntary” contributions, transport, sports gear and all the rest. A lot of parents don’t actually have the money to cover the cost, but they make sacrifices to cover it anyway, sometimes to an alarming degree.

The league survey also found that as many as one in eight parents will cut back on their food spend in the weeks ahead to cover the cost of sending their children back to school. One in four will struggle to pay bills over the coming months – just so they can send their children to school.

No actual fees

Of course, you might be forgiven for trying to convince yourself that all this spending has nothing to do with you or the Department of Education. After all, there are no actual school fees for people to pay (unless, of course, they choose to send their children to fee-paying schools).

But you would be wrong on that score too. Back-to-school costs have everything to do with the Department of Education. If it were so minded, it could see costs slashed at the stroke of a pen or two. But despite much chin-stroking by mandarins in the department over many years, nothing much ever seems to get done.

In 2013, a joint committee on education and social protection came up with some good ideas that, had they been implemented, would have cut costs to Irish parents by a massive amount.

The plans suggested that state-funded schools should stop insisting students wear expensive crested uniforms, the ones that are only to be found in certain shops.

Under the plan, all schools would have had to make (much cheaper) generic uniforms the norm. If that simple rule had been implemented, it would have made a big difference in recent years.

Don’t believe that? Just pop in to your local Tesco and you will see it selling V-necked jumpers in an array of school-uniform-friendly colours with prices starting at €3.75. That is a 10th of the price of a jumper with a fancy crest bought from a specialist shop. Lidl is selling almost complete uniforms this year for less than €6. These prices are cut off from too many Irish parents because of school-imposed rules dictating where uniforms must be bought. According to the Irish League of Credit Unions, parents of primary school children will spend €145 on uniforms this year. Uniforms in secondary school, meanwhile, will cost an average of €234. In contrast, a full year’s worth of generic uniforms could easily be bought for less than €80.

That wasn’t the only money-saving idea to come out of that Dáil committee. It also suggested a universal school-book rental scheme. After uniforms, books are the most expensive item for Irish parents. Those with kids in primary school say they will spend €94 on them this year. Secondary school parents estimate they will spend €214.

Richard, if you are not up to speed on school-book rental schemes, don’t worry, there is a helpful guide on the Department of Education website. It explains that at “the beginning of the school year, you pay the rental fee to the school . . . When your child comes to school, the teachers will give him/her the textbooks covered by the scheme.”

The guide says rental schemes “work best when they are supported fully by everyone at the school”, and it outlines how parents can help in many practical ways to set up or run a textbook rental scheme.

Do you know what would be an even better idea, Minister? That your department roll out a universal book-rental scheme and then make it mandatory. The department funds the administration of the scheme.

It wouldn’t cost the earth. They can afford to do it in Northern Ireland and loads of other countries in Europe. It would save Irish parents hundreds of millions of euro over the next few years. And the savings would just keep coming for ever.

And then we have voluntary contributions.

Let’s define the term. Voluntary means “done, given, or acting of one’s own free will”. That is not, however, what many schools think it means. Some 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.

Financial nightmare

For years, the National Parents Council has waged an entirely unsuccessful war against voluntary contributions, which it describes as “a financial nightmare”. It has called on schools to set up funding committees to look at alternatives to simply passing on the cost of funding shortfalls to parents. Some are proactive; others appear at ease with the status quo.

That Dáil committee said such things should be “greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited”. But a voluntary contribution will be made by 79 per cent of parents over the course of the next school year. The average amount sought by schools comes in at €118 per child, up from €112 in 2015

So you see, Richard, there are a few things you could do that would save Irish parents hundreds of euro every year. Do them quickly and you will be the hero Minister for Education people are still writing about in 50 years’ time. Don’t do anything and you will be very quickly forgotten.

Something to think about while you’re on your holliers, maybe?

PLAN AHEAD: 10 TIPS TO CUT BACK ON SCHOOL COSTS
Give yourself a budget and write a list, making sure to include school trips and extracurricular activities. In an ideal world, you would spread the costs over a few months.

Good-quality second-hand books and other items can be found on sites such as donedeal.ie and ebay.ie.

Check if you’re eligible for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance. It is worth €100 for children up to the age of 11, and €200 from 12 on.

Buy a generic uniforms if possible, but beware of false economies: cheap clothes may not last a full year.

If your school hasn’t set up a secondhand system for uniforms or books, offer to do it. Even an informal uniform (and book) swap shop with other parents can save a fortune.

Buy in bulk . There are always offers at school time, so work out how many copybooks, pens, pencils and notebooks you will need and buy it all.

Plan lunches in advance and shop in Lidl and Aldi, where you will spend at least 30 per cent less than in corner shops. Don’t overstuff lunchboxes.

Check supermarkets for special offers on lunchbox staples.

If you routinely drive your child to school, you might consider alternatives such as walking or cycling, if practical. Not only is it cheaper, it is much better for you and them.

Don’t be suckered in by cheap rucksacks or ones with this year’s craze emblazoned all over them. Buy a relatively plain, good-quality one and it can last for years.

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