Criticism over 'voluntary' school contributions


Families are increasingly under pressure to provide voluntary contributions to some schools according to parents’ representatives.

Confirming that amounts of up to €500 per student have been asked for, a spokeswoman for the National Parents Council post-primary said parents feel the contribution is not voluntary.

“If you don’t send your child to a fee-paying school because you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money,” Ms Jackie O’ Callaghan said. “It should be voluntary, there should never be a threat made to students or parents.”

She said that this year more people were in financial trouble than before, and she predicted greater problems with paying for books or uniforms before even taking extra payments into consideration.

Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councillor Victor Boyhan, reacting to letters parents in his constituency had received from local schools, asked for the Minister of Education to ensure non-payment of the fee doesn’t adversely affect pupils.

“This type of letter is heavy-handed and to my mind intimidating, I am appalled by its compulsory overtones. No school has the right to demand to ask a parent or guardian to write in and explain their family’s financial circumstances.”

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said earlier today schools are not allowed to ask parents to pay voluntary contributions up front, before their child has been allocated a place.

Mr Quinn was responding to reports that some schools are reportedly asking for sums of up to €500 with a refund given if the child was not admitted.

Speaking on RTE radio this morning, he said reliance on voluntary money was another victim of the Celtic Tiger’s demise.

“It is a voluntary scheme and people cannot be punished because they don’t have the money,” he said.

However he said headmasters and school managers were dealing with struggling families on a daily basis and “were not in some ivory tower unaware of what’s going on.”

Asked whether tax breaks on voluntary contributions of €250 and more were benefitting schools in wealthier catchment areas, Mr Quinn said he needed to discuss the issue with the Minister for Finance.

On the cost of school books, Mr Quinn said he had secured an agreement with publishers that they would reduce the number of new editions of standard text books.

“Parents, to their frustration, were finding that the book that suited their first child in a history or geography course was no longer suitable for a second or third child even though the space of years was quite small,” he said.

“Publishers are going to limit the number of editions but I think they can do much more. For example if a school were to buy books on a bulk basis, those schools who make that bulk purchase should, in my view, be entitled to the same kind of wholesale price that a bookshop would get for a similar kind of transaction.”

“There’s such a thing as parent power in relation to this. The National Parents Council within the education system were participants in the discussions we had around the 22 June and they are very concerned to ensure that where we have some degree of control over these costs,” he said.

Mr Quinn said he was hoping to put plans in place to incentivise schools to set up book rental schemes before the start of the next academic year. However he was unable to say how much money would be made available to set up the schemes.

“I’m realistic. We have to reduce our expenditure. Education spend is very efficient compared to health. I’m stuck with what I’ve got and I have to reduce it. We have to get our economic sovereignty back under our control,” he said.