The cost of ‘free’ education

Schools in Ireland are only free in name; semi-subsidised would be a more accurate term


The latest CSO figures have shown an increase in the cost of education. Parents will not be surprised at Friday’s Consumer Price Index, which charts price rises at all education levels over the past 12 months.

Last week, it looked like the Departmentof Education and Skills (DES) was going to get tough with schools on the matter of expensive, exclusive school uniforms. However, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn issued a statement on Wednesday describing national regulations on school uniforms as “impractical”.

Impractical is an apt description for the annual splurge that is the back-to-school season. The education system is described as free, but a literal interpretation would mean sending a child to school with no uniform, no books , no food and no stationery. A free-educated child would not have to sit out of swimming, drama and school trips. They would forgo the expense of exam corrections, materials for home economics and woodwork and Transition Year.

Their parents would also not have to tough-out a stream of communications from the school looking for voluntary contributions, donations to readathons, sponsorship form, one-off payments for drumming workshops and no-uniform days and entrance fees for school concerts.

Covering all these costs for a family of three children, and throwing a sacrament or a State exam into the mix, and it quickly adds up to four figure sums.
The ‘
voluntary’ contribution
Vincent de Paul, Barnardos and the National Parents’ Councils have made submissions to the Department of Education on the issue of the voluntary contribution.

Sixty per cent of primary schools charge a fee of between €50 and €250 per child per annum, according to the INTO. There is no official data available on post-primary schools, but an Asti straw poll suggest that the prevalence of voluntary contributions is even higher at this level. In at least one Dublin secondary school, the voluntary contribution is €475.

Earlier this year the primary section of the National Parents’ Council (NPC) made a submission to the joint committee on education and social protection on managing back to school costs. In preparation, they surveyed 900 parents of primary school children to find out the extent to which parents are actually supporting the education system, both directly through contributions and the purchase of materials, and indirectly through fundraising.

Two thirds of parents reported paying a voluntary contribution. Just over 40 per cent paid between €50 and €100 per year with 18 per cent quoting a figure of between €100 and €150. One in 10 were asked for between €150-€250.

A little more than half of the parents said that the request was made anonymously and without pressure to pay. For the rest, it was as good as involuntary, they were asked directly for the money.

The NPC survey also found that parents’ associations were raising considerable revenue for schools. Half of all respondents said their parents’ association raised between €2,500 and €10,000 per year and 14 per cent said they raised between €10,000 and €30,000 per year.

Áine Lynch, CEO of the NPC, says her organisation has serious concerns about the knock-on effects of both voluntary contributions and endless fundraising.

“Parents associations are so busy raising funds for schools they have little time for their main role; supporting parents. We believe voluntary contributions reframe the relationship between the parent and the school as a financial one, putting parents at a disadvantage. Schools may not see it as heavy-handed to send out letters or reminders, but they don’t know how it effects those who struggle to pay. Some parents use avoidance techniques, making it less likely that they will engage with the school on issues relating to the child’s education.”

Paying for subjects
At primary level, parents are routinely asked to cover the cost of tuition in subjects that are taught during the school day, the NPC reports. A common one is drama, despite the fact that teachers are trained to deliver drama modules as part of their primary teacher education.

Another is swimming, a compulsory element of the primary school curriculum yet not covered by the school capitation fees in most cases. Parents find themselves being asked for between €60 and €100 per term for swimming classes, as well as being charged for, or tasked with, transporting children to and from the pool. It’s not optional in most cases.

Tin whistle, Irish dancing and tennis are just a few of the other in-school activities that parents are asked to pay for. The NPC argues that anything that happens during school hours should be covered by the State or the school, and not the parents, as there is little or no element of choice.

A post-primary level, the practice of charging for mainstream subjects is becoming commonplace, says John O’Donovan, a principal in St Joseph’s Secondary School in Kerry. It’s always been the practice that students studying Home Economics must pay for the flour, butter and eggs they use in practical classes. However, parents are now being asked to foot the bill in other resource-intensive subjects such as woodwork and engineering.

“The increasing focus on practical projects, particularly in the Junior Cert, is pushing up the costs of some subjects and schools are passing that back to parents,” says O’Donovan, who says that some schools are now charging an average rate of €50 per student for materials for Junior Cert Materials Technology. The impending reformed Junior Cert curriculum allows for even more practical and project work.

School transport, Communion and Confirmation, Transition Year and debs also add to the burden. In exam years, parents must pay for the correction of mock papers and a fee to the State to sit the Junior and Leaving Certs. Schools are under budget pressure from all sides (see panel) and they are increasingly passing that pressure on to parents.

Each year we get back-to-school price lists from agencies like Barnardos, but they don’t truly capture the mounting year-round cost of our free education.

In many western countries the state (not parents) covers the cost of schoolbooks, and some have subsidised lunches, though other extras are paid by parents.

UK: A 2009 survey put the cost of free schooling for parents at £683.79 a year at a state primary and £1,195.47 at secondary level . It appears UK parents carry similar loads in subsidising state schools. Voluntary contributions are common.

France: Parents pay for stationery and school bags at primary level. Only after primary school do parents have to buy text books. There are no school uniforms in state schools but French officials are considering the introduction of uniforms to avoid fashion wars. Many French schools do not cover arts, music and sport to a great extent so parents pay.

Australia and New Zealand: Voluntary contributions are common.

The Netherlands: Schools are permitted to charge voluntary contributions at primary and post primary level.

Spain: Apart from books, schooling is free, but the cost of books has risen significantly over the past five years with the average book bill now €300. Uniforms are not common in state schools but some charge parents a packed-lunch fee of up to €3.50 a day. Like corkage, this is a charge for allowing children to bring their own lunches instead of buying lunch at the canteen – a practice that has grown since the recession.

The annual round up of school costs tends to take in books, uniforms and voluntary contributions. But an ongoing list of items and events means the cost of school is not just about that initial back-to-school outlay. Here are some of the year-round costs parents may need to budget for:

Swimming lessons: €50 to €90 a term
Irish dancing/tin whistle/tennis: €30 to €50 a term
Special school journal: €2 to €5
Art materials: €30
First Communion: average €200
Confirmation: average €200
School tour: average €20
Christmas play entrance fee: €5
School photo: €10
Fundraisers (no uniform day, sponsorship cards, readathons, Christmas fair and so on ): average €30 a year

Transition year: €200-€500 a year
Correction of mock exams for Junior Cert and Leaving Cert: €100 to €150 a student.
State exam fees - Junior Cert: €109
State exam fees - Leaving Cert : €116
Retreat: €20
School tours domestic €20-€50
School tours abroad: €200-€600
Ingredients for home economics: €20
Materials for woodwork/materials technology/construction studies: €50
Debs: average €100

The “voluntary” contribution varies from school to school, and three in five primary schools charge one. At post-primary it is more widespread and ranges from €50 to €500, says John O’Donovan (pictured), principal at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Kerry and chair of the ASTI Principal and Deputy Principal Committee.

He says that for voluntary secondary schools, there is up to 30 per cent of a shortfall compared to others, which leaves many schools under religious patronage struggling.

Standard capitation rates are €176 for primary and €306 for post-primary per pupil, and “the capitation grant is €90 less in a voluntary school than in a community/comprehensive school. We have to find ways of paying for ancillary staff, insurance and other unavoidable costs ourselves.”

“We have a voluntary contribution of €50 that covers photocopying, posting results, texting parents , pupil insurance and extracurricular activities.

“Utility bills are rising but capitation fees have fallen by 11 per cent in four years. It was very cold last winter and we had to buy two extra tanks of oil. That money has to be made up somewhere. I know of two schools running a deficit of €30,000 to €40,000 per year.”

How schools manage their budgets varies - it’s a matter of good housekeeping in some cases. In others, older school buildings just take more money to run.

“The bottom line is there is no place else to cut. There is very little left when all bills are paid,” says O’Donovan.

Sheila Nunan, INTO general secretary, says primary schools do not take pleasure in hitting parents for money. “No school wants to ask parents for money for art and craft, swimming lessons or computer costs which are all part of the curriculum. No school wants to ask parents for money to pay the light or heating bills.

“But nearly every Irish primary school has to do so because of government underfunding of primary schools. State spending on school running costs is less than a euro a day per child.”

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