Assistance with school costs ‘falling short’

Numbers down 56,000 over seven years but charity says the ‘working poor’ do not qualify

The St Vincent de Paul had pleaded for rates to be returned to 2011 levels, when €91m was spent on the scheme. This year the Government has allocated €49.5m.

The St Vincent de Paul had pleaded for rates to be returned to 2011 levels, when €91m was spent on the scheme. This year the Government has allocated €49.5m.

 

The number of families given welfare payments to help cover their children’s back to school costs has fallen by 56,000 over the past seven years.

Payments made under the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance scheme – which increased by €25 in last week’s budget – are down from 196,000 families in 2011 to 140,000 this year.

The Department of Social Protection said less people are eligible for the means-tested allowance as numbers signing on the live register have dropped over the same period.

But St Vincent de Paul (SVP) – which noted a 20 per cent spike in parents asking for help specifically with back to school costs this year – said the allowance does not come close to covering the actual costs. And it adds that many “working poor” do not qualify for it.

“A primary school child costs somewhere between €360 and €380 going back to school, with secondary school children costing between €760 to €900,” said SVP spokesman Jim Walsh. “There are stories of parents paying over €1,000. The rate for the back to school allowance is a long way off the costs.”

Moreover, parents of transition year pupils can be hit with costs up to €900 for extra activities during term time.

Financial worries

Another big issue is the practice of schools seeking so-called voluntary contributions towards running the school.

“That is putting a lot of pressure on people,” said Mr Walsh. “Families are reporting keeping their children home from school to avoid the embarrassment of not being able to pay for a day trip, for example, or some extra curricular activity. In some schools, parents are being asked for voluntary contributions of around €200.”

Back to school clothing and footwear rates in 2011 were €200 for a child aged four to 11 years. And €305 for a child aged between 12 and 17.

Even with last week’s increase, the new rate will remain significantly lower, at €150 and €275 respectively. The SVP had pleaded for rates to be returned to 2011 levels, when €91 million was spent on the scheme. This year, the Government has allocated €49.5 million.

The majority of claimants – more than 100,000 – qualify automatically for the allowance. But tens of thousands have to submit a means-tested application every year.

Latest figures, show four out of five of those applying also qualify.

“That means they are earning quite a low amount,” said Mr Walsh. “Even though they are working, they still have to look for the allowance . . . There are still a lot of people who don’t have an adequate income whether they are working or on social welfare. They simply don’t have the money to meet their needs.”

Red tape

Mr Walsh added that the cost of goods and services over the past year have increased, “pretty much wiping out any social welfare increases in the budget. And the fact that people come off the live register and are working doesn’t necessarily mean they have a greater level of income. Many of them are working in part-time jobs, zero-hour contracts and so on. So, they don’t qualify for social welfare, but at the same time they’re net income may well still be very low and they need help in covering back to school costs.”

A steep rise in people seeking help with back to school costs this year was in part down to delays in administering the allowance over the summer. But even those figures do not reveal the full scale of the problem. People seek help from charities to pay other costs, such as utility bills, because they have spent all their money on their children going back to school, said Mr Walsh.

The delays in processing the allowance, which caused some consternation among parents in recent months, were blamed on “a combination of technical issues and a very high volume of new applications received since the beginning of July.”

A departmental spokeswoman said all outstanding claims are being dealt with “expeditiously”.