Preparing for the back-to-school season

Pricewatch: counting the cost of education

Counting the cost of going back to school.

Counting the cost of going back to school.


It won’t be long before the evenings start drawing in and people are complaining about Brown Thomas opening its Christmas shop but there is one other seasonal regular we need to deal with first.

Is it back to school time already?

No, thankfully – or sadly, depending on your perspective – it is not. In fact, there are still a good five or six weeks to go before any school gates re-open. But, as with so many things, advertising and marketing campaigns, the demands of retailers and the desire of consumer-focused pages in quality newspapers to stay ahead of the game, we must start writing about the business of education earlier and earlier each year. It won’t be long before you’re reading back-to-school features in February.

But we’re not there yet. So where are we?

Well, we thought we’d kick start the annual back-to-school season with a question and answer session.

Is that what you’re doing now?

Yes, yes it is.

Okay, well, let’s start. Our education system is free, right?

Ha. It is certainly supposed to be and maybe it once was, although not for long. On September 10th, 1966, the then minister for education Donogh O’Malley surprised all his cabinet colleagues and the then taoiseach Jack Lynch when he announced that the provision of free education for all the State’s children was to be a constitutional obligation. It was, by almost every measure, one of the most progressive, positive and far-reaching policy announcements ever made by an Irish politician. His vision was, however, betrayed by subsequent generations of politicians who let the whole free business slide.

What do you mean by that?

Well, since he made his bold statement, Irish parents have probably spent more than €20 billion on educating their offspring in a supposedly free system. And, to be clear, we are not talking about private school fees here, that is a completely different kettle of onions and one we are not – for the purposes of this article – remotely interested in.

So, how much does a free education cost?

That really depends on where you live, how many children you have in school and what survey you believe, and there will be a whole raft of them appearing in the days ahead. But, as a rule of thumb, the cost of sending one child to a non-fee paying school in Ireland is likely to cost their parents anywhere between €500 and €1,500. And that does not include most extra-curricular activities, school trips, high-end tablets or many of the other things which are becoming necessary as we settle into the 21st century.

Do people struggle to meet these costs?

Do they what? TS Elliot once said that April was the cruellest month but, for many parents, August is a whole lot crueller because they have to come up with hundreds, or even thousands, of euro to pay sky-high back-to-school prices. Last year, record numbers of parents struggling to cover the cost of food, clothes, transition year, voluntary contributions and the technology some schools insist on, made contact with the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). All told, more than 5,000 families contacted the society in the run-up to last September in search of help in covering the cost of sending their children back to school.

A separate survey, also published last year by the Irish League of Credit Unions, found that almost one in four parents said they would have to deny their children some basic school items as they continue to struggle to cover the cost of returning to school. One-fifth of parents with children in primary school and nearly one-third of those with children in secondary school said they would have no choice but to cut back on some spending this year.

But at least there is State aid for parents, right?

Sort of. There is a Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance to help parents with the costs but it is not overly generous and the income threshold for qualification is pretty low. Parents of children aged between four and 11 get €125 while parents of older children can get €250. A couple with two children in full-time education must have a combined weekly income of €619 or less to qualify for the grant.

That is not a whole lot. Is there anyone defending the interests of parents?

Yes, there are many people who voice concerns at this time of year and things appear to be changing for the better, albeit at a glacial pace. The annoying thing is that fixing our education system and making it genuinely free is not as hard as it sounds and it could be done handily enough and at a relatively low cost. And if you don’t believe Pricewatch, believe Barnardos. The organisation is blue in the face telling us how a genuinely free system could be achieved; it has been doing so every year for a long time now. It has done the sums and worked out that both primary and secondary level education could be made free at a cost of not much more than €100 million to the State. Yet each year its calls for parents to be offered real help fall on deaf ears and costs continue to climb.

Why doesn’t the Government do something if it costs so little and would be so popular?

A good question, if we say so ourselves. To be fair to the Government – and to some past governments – it is a little bit more complicated than Barnados might suggest. While the State funds education and sets the curriculum and pays the teachers and all the rest, it does not actually control schools; boards of management do. Many, but by no means all, boards of management are hugely progressive and active in promoting parental involvement and introducing simple systems to reduce costs. Others are more resistant to change.

Is the Minister for Education doing anything to make things better?

To his credit, Minister for Education Richard Bruton has at least tried to improve things. In recent years his department has published circulars which have directed schools to roll out measures which would save parents money. Among the suggestions coming from the department are 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. But, as we said, things are complicated because schools are funded by the State but run by boards of management rather than directly by the department. It means all its measures cannot be rolled out uniformly. By contrast, the public education system in Northern Ireland is run entirely by the State so it can be more hands-on in implementing changes.

What about uniforms? A good idea or a bad one? Cheap or expensive?

Well, uniforms certainly take the stress out of dressing children of a morning, that is for sure, but they can be expensive. Some schools insist on their students buying their uniforms in particular shops and that can add to the costs. Generic uniforms are key to saving parents money. We can see why schools like to have their own crests but should parents really have to pay through the nose for that? A jumper with a bespoke crest embroidered onto the chest can cost as much as €40. A generic one can be bought for less than a fiver.

School uniforms in Arnotts, Henry Street, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
School uniforms in Arnotts, Henry Street, Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Less than a fiver? Really?

Really. While both Marks and Spencer and Dunnes Stores sell good quality uniforms at reasonable prices, the German discounters have some incredibly cheap ranges on offer. In recent days, Lidl has been selling sweaters for 99 cent and trousers and skirts for €1.99. Pinafores cost €3.49 and polo shirts are €1.99. Shoes are €6.99. It is also selling T-shirts, tights, socks and all the other things a child might need at very low prices. Aldi has a range of back-to-school clothes too for comparable prices. Shop wisely and you could kit out two children for a full year for less than €50. Although, as always with both Lidl and Aldi, when the stock is gone, it’s gone . . . to borrow a tag line from an entirely different store.

What about school books? They’re pretty dear, right?

They sure are. The market for school books in the State is worth more than €50 million each year and while the Department of Education covers the costs in disadvantaged schools, parents are expected to pay the rest unless rental schemes are in place. People with kids in primary school will spend around €100 on books while secondary school parents will spend more than €200.

Unfortunately, book-rental schemes are by no means universal. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Unfortunately, book-rental schemes are by no means universal. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

What can be done to cut costs here?

Cutting costs to parents in this area would be relatively simple. We have said it before and will most likely have to say it again but book-rental schemes across all schools are essential and they would save parents a huge amount of money. Rental schemes, like those which operate in Northern Ireland, are a brilliant idea. Not only are they cost effective, they also teach children about personal responsibility and the need to look after their stuff.

Second-hand school books can save a lot of money. Photograph: Eric Luke
Second-hand school books can save a lot of money. Photograph: Eric Luke

How do they work?

At beginning of the school year parents pay a rental fee to the school and the child gets all their textbooks free. At the end of the year, as long as the books are returned relatively unblemished, much of the fee can be returned.

Why aren’t these schemes mandatory?

Because, as we have said already, the State cannot make them mandatory when schools are controlled by parents. It has increased funding for such schemes and is definitely doing more to encourage them but book-rental schemes are by no means universal. They need buy-in from schools and, perhaps even more critically, support from parents. More parents need to step up and volunteer to help set up and manage book-rental schemes in schools across the country. It would be better for everyone.

But workbooks couldn’t be part of a scheme, right?

That is right. Workbooks which are written all over by small hands cannot be re-used which is why they have been described as the work of the devil. That might be extreme but they are neither good for our pockets nor our planet. They are used once and discarded. And they cost at least €10 each.

What is wrong with writing answers in copybooks?

We have asked ourselves this question many times.

School bags are getting heavier, right?

They certainly seem to be and we can’t for the life of us see why. A report last year from the National Parents’ Council found that almost one-third of parents of primary school pupils said their children could not walk to school because of the weight of their schoolbags.

Why are school bags getting heavier, year on year? Photograph: Getty
Why are school bags getting heavier, year on year? Photograph: Getty

To be fair to both schools and the Government, children do bear some of the responsibility for the weight and if Pricewatch’s experience is anything to go by, a lot of the weight found in school bags is not books but the detritus of childhood including slime, fidget spinners, flossy dance manuals, yo-yos, weird fluffy toy keyrings and all the other things that come and go in a child’s life. It is also worth asking kids to think about the books they bring home each day. If they have no maths homework, do they really need to carry home their Mental Maths book? That seems mental to us.

And speaking of homework, that is really important, right?

Is it really? Finland has one of the best education systems in the world, despite – or more likely because – secondary school students do less than 30 minutes’ homework a day, and many do none at all. Wouldn’t it be good if we stopped ruining our children’s lives and gave them less or no homework so they could play and read books? They can spend all the time they like as adults chained to a desk and a laptop and bringing work home but maybe when they are young we could cut them some slack.

What does the word voluntary mean?

The dictionary definition of this word is something which is “done, made, brought about, undertaken of one’s own accord or by free choice”. It 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.

What do you mean?

Well, we have huge sympathy for shamefully underfunded schools that can’t afford to pay their heating bills, fix their roofs or buy paper for the photocopying machine without asking for cash from parents. But there is no justification for putting 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.

Anything else?

No, go out and play, school’s still out for summer.

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