“Hidden costs” associated with schools, including children being told to bring in €2 for no-uniform days, school-tour fees and end-of-term gifts for teachers, are causing poorer children not to attend, a charity worker has warned.
Speaking at a webinar hosted by the newly-formed Children’s Futures campaign, titled Spotlight on Educational Disadvantage, Catherine McCurdy said these hidden costs “must stop”.
She said she had a mother come into her recently, in the Wexford branch of Barnardos, "highly stressed".
“There was a no-uniform day and a bake sale on the same day. Her child would need €4. She actually said, ‘What it comes down to is either buying a chicken for the dinner or giving the child the €4 so they can feel included in school’. That’s wrong and it needs to stop.”
Gifts for teachers should be “disallowed”, Ms McCurdy added. “We have children who don’t go to school on those last fun days because they cannot afford to bring in the little gift for the teacher… Schools need to put policies in place that this is not allowed.”
She asked why parents were asked to pay for school tours when “tours are part of a child’s learning”.
Tracey Reilly, who works with the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma organisation, said many children who struggled with online learning during the pandemic had not returned to school, believing they had fallen too far behind their peers.
Those who face obstacles accessing technology, wifi and books were further “curtailed during Covid…Many Traveller young people are not returning to school as yet. There are no outreach supports to encourage them to go back into the system. They felt they missed out on so much of their education there is no point in returning to school”.
While additional in-class supports for children who had fallen behind during the pandemic were welcome, she said they did “not address the issue of children who have disengaged from the education system and who do not plan to return to school”. If action is not taken with these children, she warned, “they will not have the opportunity to complete their education”.
Free hot meals
Marcella Stakem, research and policy officer with the Society of St Vincent de Paul, said if there was "one silver lining to this pandemic it is the opportunity we have now to address the issues faced by people facing poverty and social exclusion".
Contributors called for investment in in-school emotional supports for children, free hot meals for any school applying for them; free tablets and iPads for children who needed them and greater cross-departmental co-operation across issues that affect children’s education including health and housing.