“Young people don’t just decide to leave education. It’s not a one-day event. It all starts in primary school, when their parents can’t afford to buy copybooks, textbooks and pens. Already, that young child is seen as someone outside the fold – and they start to pull back from education.”
So says Don O’Leary, director of the Cork Life Centre, an alternative education setting that provides Junior and Leaving Cert education to children who find themselves outside the mainstream.
He sees the provision of free school books and stationery for their students as essential. “Copybooks, textbooks and pens are the bare necessities of education,” O’Leary says. “We provide the books and so the cost barrier is removed. Young people on the [autism] spectrum might have organisation problems, so having the books together in the right place at the right time avoids notes home and entries into the school diary.
“And, perhaps most of all, the cost of books is scandalous – especially for families who may have three or four children. Books used to go from one child to the next but now, with junior cycle reforms, we have to buy new books; the old books become useless and can’t even go to a second-hand bookshop.”
This week, St Vincent de Paul revealed that it has received 6,250 calls on school costs – or between 250 and 300 calls a day – over the summer, a rise of five per cent on last year.
It follows on from a survey from the Irish League of Credit Unions showing that 78 per cent of parents struggled with back-to-school costs compared with 68 per cent last year, with more than one-third falling into debt and 24 per cent turning to moneylenders and paying exorbitant interest rates that may lead them into further debt.
Schools only get €24 per pupil towards the purchase of books, but a book could cost significantly more
In the Barnardos school costs survey, 51 per cent of primary school parents and 46 per cent of secondary school parents said that the price of school books had risen this year, although there is a chink of light: the majority of those who avail of a book rental scheme said the costs had stayed the same.
With more schools – especially at second-level, turning to digital technology, iPads or other tablets, as well as school books – costs can add up to as much as €1,000.
The school book rental scheme is widely cited as an initiative that has helped families but that, too, has problems. The issue is, as always, a hot topic politically: in mid-September, the joint Oireachtas committee on education and skills is due to discuss book rental schemes and elearning.
Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, says that school books can be “incredibly expensive” at second level. Both she and Fiona O’Loughlin, Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the education committee, point out that school book rental schemes can cost schools up to €200,000 to get off the ground.
“Schools only get €24 per pupil towards the purchase of books, but a book could cost significantly more,” says Leydon. “It’s completely inadequate, and so many schools have a book rental scheme for first and second years only. There is a need to review the effectiveness and operation of the scheme.”
O’Loughlin, meanwhile, says that schools should have access to €20 million in seed funding that would enable them to run a book rental scheme. She also called for a restoration of primary school capitation grants to 2010 levels, but stopped short of agreeing that the State should provide free school books.
“We do want to bring new ideas but, under confidence and supply, can’t bring forward [suggestions] that will have a money cost on the State,” she says.
Suzanne Connolly is the chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardos, which is a member of the Children’s Rights Alliance. She hopes that change may be on the horizon.
“Children have a right to free primary education, and they are not getting it at the moment,” she says. “Some progress has been made: book rental schemes are available in 74 per cent of primary schools now, compared with 50 per cent in 2012. We also want to see the Department of Education’s circular to school, requesting that schools don’t use workbooks which can’t be transferred from one child to another. And capitation rates need to be increased to reduce the pressure of voluntary contributions.”
Barnardos does seem to have softened its demands, however. Under former chief executive Fergus Finlay, the organisation was calling for the State to eliminate primary school expenses at a cost of €103 million per annum and removing secondary school costs at €126.9 million per annum. Since Connolly took over, she has said that they would be satisfied to see school books made free at primary level, at a cost of €20 million per year.
“Given budget demands, we have to focus on what we believe is deliverable at the moment,” she says. “Of course, we would be happy to see costs reduced at second-level – and for education ultimately to be free – but this is a good first step. Let’s see what is addressed in the budget; then we will consider our next steps.”
Meanwhile, Áine Lynch, president of the National Parents’ Council, says that there are too many updates needed for textbooks, and too many textbooks for the same curriculum. She adds that any conversation on school book costs must be considered alongside a conversation about digital technologies.
Alan Cantwell is general secretary of the Irish Educational Publishers Association, which represents nine publishers accounting for more than 95 per cent of published educational material in Ireland.
He says that publishers are including resources for junior cycle portfolios as part of packages, and that this is reducing costs for parents. But, he adds, producing quality textbooks is time-consuming and costly.
"We adhere strictly to a code of practice agreed with the Department of Education and Skills in 2012 where books cannot be revised within four years of publication unless there are curriculum changes.
“In 2018, only 76 titles (2.63 per cent) were revised. When a revised edition of a textbook is produced, the old edition will be kept in print for a two-year period, unless annual sales fall below 500 copies. This means any edition of a textbook will be available for a minimum of six years, assuming market demand. [But] we accept that [first and fifth year] are “bubble” years, where costs can be as high as €250-300, depending on subjects.”
PARENTS FRUSTRATION BOILS OVER
The cost of school books, as well as uniforms and voluntary contributions, have been covered in numerous articles for this newspaper for at least 20 years. This is a small selection of more than 50 messages received from fed-up parents over the last few weeks:
• It costs me €1,000 to send my son to a local public school: iPad, books, uniform, school shoes, school fee etc. I would have to take a loan if I had two children. The system is milking parents and the biggest scam of all is iPads.
• I live in direct provision, not qualified to work, I have three children in school. The youngest is five and going to senior infants: school books and copies are €50, uniform €30, school shoes €30, school bag €30, lunch bag €8, book rental €50.50. I’m not allowed work to augment my meagre allowance.
• Already €200 before buying stationery and uniforms. Disadvantaged parents crying in the carpark when lists sent out.
• Transition year: €300 fee plus €250 for books and uniforms. Fifth class: about €200. Third class: €60 so far but will be asked to get books in December, while clothes will be €120-€150. Oh and I’ll be asked for a €90 voluntary contribution in the new year.
• My children’s school runs a book rental scheme. Flat, reasonable rate at the start of every year. We’ve never once had to go to a school books shop with a long list of books to buy.
• Can you imagine if every parent came to the Phoenix Park in June and dumped their workbooks in one big pile, what would that look like?
• My only child is going into sixth year, she had to skip transition year because I couldn’t afford to have her around for a year doing nothing and on top of it there are trips which I wouldn’t be able to afford. She has to get a school bus which adds to the cost of her “free” education. In all I’d say by the time she finishes I’ll have spent more than €4,000 to get her through secondary school. I’m divorced, my ex lives abroad, I get little support from him cause he doesn’t have it, I’ve just turned 60 have chronic arthritis, am on a disability allowance and work part-time. It’s been really, really hard. Happy to see the end in sight.