School costs: the myth of ‘free’ education

New measures aimed at keeping a lid on back-to-school expenses are unlikely to ease the burden on parents

The election manifesto pledge is crystal clear: free school books for all children and a primary school system free of any charge or contribution.

Sound familiar? That was Fine Gael’s policy pledge during the 1937 general election. Most of the major political parties have been busy since, making similar promises but delivering little.

The myth of free education at both primary and secondary level is well and truly shattered when you comb through the latest Barnardos report on the real cost of school.

For more than a decade, the organisation has been highlighting how, between books, uniforms, lunches, school transport and “voluntary contributions” – which many parents say are effectively strong-armed from them by schools and which schools say they loathe having to get from parents – back to school costs can easily add up to €400 per year per child.


For second-level pupils, they can be €800 a year per child. Third-level is the priciest of all, with a student living away from home in Dublin needing about €12,000 per year.

June Tinsley, head of advocacy at Barnardos, says the State could eliminate all primary school costs for €103.2 million per annum, while €126.9 million per annum would free parents of secondary school costs.

“No other public service has to subsidise their funding to maintain basic provision. The Department of Education must stop relying on schools and parents to fund basic necessities.”

This Government has, however, effectively ruled out taking up the Barnardos suggestion.

Cost reduction initiatives

Earlier this year, Minister for Education Richard Bruton issued a circular to schools, urging them to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents, including the use of generic uniforms and the introduction of school book schemes.

Schools are now required to consult with parents on their views and ask for suggestions on cost reduction initiatives. Back-to-school clothing and footwear allowances have also increased.

So, has it made any difference?

A survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions noted that there has been a 21 per cent drop in the cost of uniforms since last year, while a spokesperson for Bruton points out that it will take time for parents to really feel the effect of the new regulations in their wallets.

But many schools – and some parents – say that Bruton’s plan is just tinkering around the edges.

Séamus Mulcrony , general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, says the issues are symptoms of a chronically underfunded primary education system. "We have gone from having a lean system to a financially anorexic one. Schools are finding it difficult to cope. Principals are criticised for requesting voluntary contributions, but it is not their fault. Boards of management and principals are being asked to run schools on 92 cents per day; you couldn't buy a Snickers for that.

“Principals hate having to fundraise and, in some communities, the parents just don’t have the money. The costs of running a school have increased, partially because costs have gone up everywhere but also because educating children today requires technology. That said, we can do quite a lot with a little more investment, and restoring the capitation grant to €200 per year would go such a long way.”

Capitation funding

The Government’s action plan for education contains a commitment to increase capitation funding to schools, and schools which introduce the cost effective principals will receive a premium payment.

The spokesperson said that increasing capitation funding “remains a priority to address as soon as possible. However, it is important to note that there are limited funds available in Budget 2018 to meet a wide range of needs across all areas of Government.”

Barnardos, along with many rival politicians, reject this analysis, and say that the Government can make choices as to which expenditure or tax cuts it prioritises.

Fianna Fáil's education spokesperson, Thomas Byrne, says the party would increase capitation funding to remove the need for voluntary contributions, and that they would also restore eligibility criteria for the school transport scheme.

Sinn Féin says it would increase funding for school book schemes to €60 million over the next five years, which would see free schoolbooks available to children across the State by 2022, and increase funding for school transport schemes.

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin says that the circular to reduce school costs was never likely to have any impact, “given that the Minister didn’t back up his instruction with any funding to support schools to take steps to reduce school costs... Fine Gael’s obsession with tax cuts looks likely to prevent any meaningful progress in providing funding to support public services.”

My education costs: ‘A rip in the school uniform was a big problem’

Aedín Andrews (20), third-year zoology student at Trinity College

“When I was in primary and secondary school, a rip in the school uniform was a big problem.

“ You had to go to a particular shop for a crest, and another for the jacket and the shoes. It had to be a plain navy jacket. And then, in secondary school, the uniform changed between junior and senior cycle.

“The school uniform was, by far, the biggest school cost for mam: it could be €50 for the jumper alone. But the cost of school books was huge as well. I have an older sister and we were in the same school so some of them could be passed down, but the past exam papers – which we had to have – couldn’t be handed down because they are workbooks and had been written on.

“I think I first noticed all these costs when I was in third year of secondary school and went to get a school jumper with my mam. She’s a single parent, and she’s worked hard and gone back to college to support us, but the lone parent’s and other allowances never come close to covering back to what was needed.

“College was always on the agenda for us, and mam and my grandparents were so supportive of us getting a good education. I got into Trinity through the access programme. It is still expensive though, and I have had to work, sometimes to the detriment of my studies.

“The days of leaving school and going into a labour job are gone. Now, even an undergraduate degree is not enough for many employers. Education isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. We have got to start making it more affordable and accessible. Genuinely free primary education would be a very helpful first step.”

How much would free primary education cost?

It is estimated that €103 million would provide a truly free primary education system. This is equivalent to:

– 3 per cent of the stake the Government sold in AIB earlier this year

– 20 per cent of the total originally allocated for water meter installation

– 30 per cent of the funds generated annually by the TV licence fee

– 32 per cent of the money committed by the Government to the support Ireland’s rugby world cup bid

– 50 per cent of the estimated cost of repaying water charges to those who paid