School voluntary contributions are ‘fees in disguise’ and should be banned - Labour

Senator calls for universal payment for school clothes, footwear and free books

School voluntary contributions are “fees in disguise” and should be banned by Government, according to the Labour Party.

Education spokesman Aodhán Ó Riordáin has also called for a universal payment to be made to parents from 2020 for school clothing and footwear costs, rather than the current means-tested scheme.

And he proposed the introduction of a free book scheme for primary schools that would be extended over two years to secondary level.

Estimates of the total expenditure for the Labour party proposals vary between €100 million and €135 million but Mr Ó Riordáin defended the measures and priced them at at the lower end of the scale.

He acknowledged that it was a “lot of money” but “these are political choices you make”.

He said Fine Gael proposed cutting taxes in the budget, but said: “We’re not advocating for any tax cuts on any level anywhere. We don’t want to cut taxes, we want to spend money.”

And he dismissed as a “pre-election idea” a proposal by Minister for Education Joe McHugh to freeze student contributions for the next five years.

“It would be nice if we had a vision of how we’re going to bring down the student contribution,” he said, describing Mr McHugh’s recent announcement as a “one line policy proposal” in the middle of August.

Mr Ó Riordáin, a former primary school principal, has introduced legislation in the Seanad to ban primary schools soliciting direct “voluntary contributions”, which he claimed were effectively fees for access to education. He pointed out the Constitution made a commitment to free primary education.

He said the demand for contributions meant parents were less likely to interact with the school because “if they’re going to be asked about the school book rental money or the voluntary contribution” they were less likely to “hang around the school gate” or to go to a parent-teacher meeting or a school football match “if you think the teacher is going to be there and you’re going to be asked” about money.

The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association estimates that €45 million is collected in voluntary contributions each year but these figures included all fundraising. The Labour Bill would specifically ban contributions that are for direct school activity. An increased capitation grant should be put in place as an alternative to the voluntary contribution, the Bill suggests.

The State currently spends €20 million on the primary school books rental scheme Mr Ó Riordáin pointed to the estimate by children’s charity Barnardos Ireland that an additional €20 million would provide free books to every primary school child.

It would cost a further €20 million to extend it to secondary schools.

The current means-tested back to school clothing and footwear allowance cost the State €49.5 million in 2018 with €125 for children aged four to 12 and €250 for children between 12 and 18. A universal payment should be made to all parents from July 2020 to mitigate those costs, Mr Ó Riordáin said.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times