Every year at around this time of year Pricewatch runs a back-to-school special in which we highlight the many costs associated with educating the young people of Ireland.
For more years than we can remember, we have been moaning about a system which is supposed to be mostly free but ends up costing most parents hundreds, if not thousands, of euro each year.
But we don’t just give out and we offer all manner of top tips to those in authority, the ones who are charged with implementing education policy in Ireland; and we highlight how costs for parents might be reduced.
The good news is that the powers that be have been paying more attention to us than we ever did to our unfortunate teachers and a raft of measures aimed at supporting the families of Ireland have been rolled out in recent years, meaning the costs have largely disappeared.
With each passing year virtually nothing changes and parents and schools – and the teachers who we should all appreciate more than ever now that Covid has taught many of us just how hard teaching actually is – are left to soldier on with support from a State that (in the words of so many of Pricewatch’s teachers of times past) should be doing better and needs to paying more attention.
First things first: will there be a traditional back to school this year?
The good news is that come the end of this month Ireland's schools will reopen. Late last month the Minister for Education, Norma Foley. brought a memo to Cabinet confirming that "plans are in place to support the full reopening of schools in time for the start of the new school year".
And will children have to wear masks?
Again, the answer is yes. As part of the Government's plans, schools will have to operate with the "current infection prevention and control measures in place". According to the Minister, "new variants of the disease do not change the infection prevention and control measures required in schools. The evidence available from the operation of schools during Covid-19 to date shows that schools are low-risk environments due to the infection prevention and control measures in place".
Anything else Covid-related I need to know?
Well, one new thing happening from the start of the school year will be the widespread use of carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors across every school in the State. They are described as "an important tool in keeping our schools safe". In essence the alarms will monitor the levels of ventilation in classrooms to ensure that the airflow is as it should be in order to minimise the chances of infection.
Okay, so back to what we normally talk about? Is back-to-school time still as expensive as ever?
Unfortunately, the answer is – again – yes and according to the latest raft of research published by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) there has been no let-up in the costs for Irish parents. Those sending a child to primary school this September will pay an average of €1,186, up €63 on last year, while parents of children attending secondary school can expect to pay an average of €1,491, up from €1,467 last year.
But isn't education in Ireland free?
It is certainly supposed to be. Over 50 years ago the minister for education in a Fianna Fáil government, Donogh O'Malley, announced that free education for all the State's children was to become a constitutional obligation. It didn't work out quite as he might have anticipated. Irish parents have spent more than €20 billion on educating their young since then.
What are the main costs parents have to stump up for?
Well, according to the ILCU, schoolbooks once again top the list as the most expensive item for parents of secondary schoolchildren. The cost is put at €211, up from €196 last year. Extracurricular activities are the top cost for primary-school parents, at €178, up from €167 last year. Spending on gym gear/sports equipment has increased for both primary school (€77, up €15 from 2020) and secondary school (€121, up €11 from 2020).
Why are books so expensive?
Why indeed? It is not like that in Northern Ireland, where an extensive book-rental system means parents are not as burdened as they are here. There are some book-rental schemes in the Republic but they are a long way from universal. About a third of parents with children in primary school have no access to a book-rental scheme, while as many as two-thirds of parents with kids in secondary school can't access book-rental schemes.
How do they work?
They are pleasingly 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 up north. And the savings would just keep coming forever.
But you wouldn't be able to rent a workbook?
Don't get us started on workbooks. 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 year or so of remote learning has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that children do not need workbooks to learn.
Why doesn't the State just make book-rental schemes mandatory?
Because the State can't tell schools what to do. Despite the fact that it pays the wages of staff and gives schools money for buildings and lighting and heating and a lot more, it has little or no power to intervene when it comes to how individual schools are managed.
That seems weird.
Doesn't it? It has been like this for generations. The State pays the piper but doesn't call the tune. That means it can abdicate responsibility for micromanaging schools and effectively hand over the day-to-day running of them to boards of management who can pretty much do what they like when it comes to books, uniforms and other thorny issues such as voluntary contributions – something we will come to presently.
Why do we even have books anyway? Why isn't everything electronic?
Electronic devices can prove to be hideously expensive. While they are interactive and light and have been adopted by many schools, 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 a couple of years ago by the consulting firm McKinsey on the performance of 15-year-old students across Europe 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 the jury is still out and tablets and computers did prove to be absolutely essential during the Covid lockdowns.
They would make school bags lighter though?
They would and Irish school bags could do with lightening up. A recent study 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. We blame homework: if it didn't exist then kids could leave their books at school and use their bags for lunches and phones and the like.
But homework is essential, right?
Is it though? It is a mainstay of the Irish education system but it may not have the benefits we think it has. Just look at our friends in 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.
Did the credit-union survey throw up anything else of note?
For the second year running, the ILCU survey also looked at the impact and concerns brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it reported that Covid has had a profound impact on families, with seven in 10 adults surveyed reporting that the mental health of their household has been affected, and almost a third saying that their physical health has suffered.
As expected, households struggled with the challenges of home schooling, with almost a third of parents saying they found it difficult to juggle home-schooling with work commitments and more than a quarter agreeing that home-schooling was a burden.
From a financial perspective, the report also found that 35 per cent of those polled said the extra cost of feeding children when home-schooling had the biggest effect on household finances, with 22 per cent of parents saying expenditure on laptops/tablets to support home-schooling has had an impact on their household finances.
Funding back to school continues to be a challenge for parents, with 63 per cent of parents saying that covering the cost of back to school is a financial burden. Nearly a quarter are getting into debt to cover the costs of back to school. Of these, three-quarters have debts of more than €200, with 21 per cent having debts of more than €500.
Yes: depressingly, 43 per cent of parents said they would have to deny their children new gym gear, up 16 per cent from 2020. Parents also reported that 71 per cent of schools are still seeking so-called "voluntary contributions".
A separate survey from Barnardos found that half of parents were worried about the cost of returning to school, with a third saying that meeting these would be more difficult this year as a result of Covid-19. Increased uniform and schoolbook costs were noted by about half of primary school parents and almost two-thirds of parents who had children in second level.
What are voluntary contributions again?
For a start can we say what they are not? They are not voluntary, or at least not often. Schools get capitation grants from the Government with a certain amount a certain amount handed over for each child in the school. The grants are used to cover expenses including heating, lighting, insurance, communications and more.
The grants are rarely enough to cover the actual costs, which is why 65 per cent of primary and 75 per cent of secondary schools ask parents for a voluntary contribution. Too many schools put huge pressure on parents to pay up, sums which can range from less than €100 to well in excess of €200. In the best-case scenarios, parents are encouraged to pay the money but are assured that if they have difficulties affording it, there is no problem. In the worst circumstances constant reminders about the payments are sent home via their children.
The schools get it in the neck but in many cases, the blame rests with the State, which has for decades underfunded schools, leaving too many struggling to raise the money they need to operate.
What's the story with uniforms?
They can be pricey, particularly when schools mandate that they come from particular outlets. A crested school jumper from an official provider can cost about €40, while a jumper without a crest can be found in Marks & Spencer for less than €7 and even cheaper again in Aldi and Lidl.
These shops and Tesco and Dunnes sell generic uniforms for substantially less than they can be found elsewhere but they are unavailable to some kids, as many schools want children coming to school in crested uniforms bought in specialist shops.
And what about the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance?
Parents qualify if they are receiving a social-welfare payment (including the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment), or taking part in an approved employment scheme or training course and have a household income below a certain limit which depends on the size of the family.
A family with four children has a weekly income threshold of €723.70. For children aged between four and 11, the allowance is €150, climbing to €275 for those in secondary school.