Ask Brian: What if I don’t pay the school’s ‘voluntary contribution’?

Teachers should have no knowledge or interest in these financial matters

Financial contributions may  be sought from parents only on the basis that a child’s place in a school is not dependant on making a contribution. Photo: iStock

Financial contributions may be sought from parents only on the basis that a child’s place in a school is not dependant on making a contribution. Photo: iStock

 

Question: My daughter is starting primary school and I’ve received a reminder letter for a “voluntary contribution”. I’m worried that by not paying they will treat her differently to other children, but I can’t afford it. What are my rights?

Answer: No school should ever allow a parent’s inability or unwillingness to support the school financially to affect, in any way, their engagement with any pupil. Teachers, in any case, should have no knowledge or interest in such financial matters.

As a result, don’t worry about feeling that your child will be treated any differently from others.

Financial contributions may be sought from parents only on the basis that a child’s place in a school is not dependant on making a contribution.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has previously stated that any school which forces parents to pay the fee, or gives that impression, will face investigation by the Department of Education.

Apart from private schools, no charge may be made for instruction in any subject of the school curriculum or for recreation or other activities where all pupils are expected to take part.

However, schools are permitted to seek payment for extra-curricular activities as long as such activities are not obligatory and individual pupils can choose whether or not to participate.

There is an official Department of Education circular (0065/2010) which sets out in more detail the official rules about charges that may be legitimately requested.

In addition, new laws due to come into force soon – the School Admissions Act (2018) – will prohibit fees relating to admissions.

This is in response to a practice among some schools of charging a fee for the continued enrolment of students.

While Government ministers often portray themselves as standing up for parents, in reality they have much to answer for.

Underfunding

Voluntary contributions are a symptom of the underfunding of the education system: many schools need the payment in order to make ends meet.

They have now become a permanent feature of Irish education. In fact, its existence arose as a central building block of the so-called “free education” scheme introduced by the then minister for education Donagh O’Malley in 1966.

Schools at the time were given a payment per student in exchange to forgo the “fees” which voluntary secondary schools charged up to that date.

This payment was never enough, so the “voluntary contribution” was born: a concept which allowed the State to deem the school non fee-paying, while at the same time allowing the parents to voluntarily pay the school the difference between the original fee and the State capitation grant.

If the Government was really serious about tackling this issue, it would fund schools appropriately so they do not need to seek additional payments from parents.

Various bodies have estimated that it would cost about €100 million at primary level to provide a genuinely free education. Until that happens, parents can expect these funding appeals.