Back-to-school costs lead to educational inequality


The Government should take steps to reduce the high cost of "free education" for families on low incomes, writes Norah Gibbons

Going back to school can produce anxiety, feelings of being unable to cope and fear that the sums won't add up . . . and at this time of the year there's every chance that it's the parents rather than their children who are experiencing all of the aforementioned. Mounting back-to-school costs has meant that free education has never cost so much.

Currently, some 785,000 children are trying on school shoes, fitting on uniforms and buying textbooks in preparation for their return to school in September. Those whose parents are on social welfare are eligible for the back-to-school footwear and clothing allowance - although this does not include school books - but the reality is that thousands of families on low incomes are having to pay school costs out of their normal household incomes.

One in seven children lives in consistent poverty in Ireland. This means their families' income is below 60 per cent of median disposable income and they experience one or more deprivation indicators, including the inability to pay everyday household expenses without falling into debt.

Using that definition, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that thousands of already hard-pressed, hard-working families across the country will find themselves in additional debt as a result of funding their children's return to school.

Despite ongoing Government commitment to combat educational disadvantage, including the Department of Education's action plan for educational inclusion, few direct supports are available to low-income families to assist towards all of the costs of sending a child back to school.

Yet common sense tells us that primary school is the time when the foundation blocks of education are laid and when a child's mind is open to learning.

Shamefully, some 1,000 children every year never even make it to secondary school, while thousands leave with severe literacy and numeracy problems.

Barnardos works to combat the effects of poverty and educational disadvantage in our work with children and families.

We know from our work on the ground that where there is poverty, there is educational disadvantage and this cycle perpetuates itself, robbing another generation of equality of opportunity.

A key operational principle of the National Children's Strategy is "equitableness" which states "all children should have equality of opportunity in relation to access, participation in and derive benefit from the services delivered and have the necessary levels of quality support to achieve this".

How can a child have equality of opportunity when his or her capacity to access quality education is determined by such factors as parental income?

Minister for Social and Family Affairs Séamus Brennan said last week he was concerned about the "tens of thousands of families on social welfare payments who may qualify for the scheme [ back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance] and who appear not to be applying for the financial support for whatever reason, despite all the publicity and promotion the scheme is given".

It could be argued that it is up to the department to make people aware of their benefits and entitlements and, if its current methods of doing so are not working, then it needs to investigate new ones. For example, it could send all families that are eligible the appropriate forms with a return envelope. It could also be argued that some of these tens of thousands of families who appear not be applying for the scheme, particularly those families in receipt of family income supplement (FIS), might well be confused by apparent policy contradictions.

FIS is the Government top-up benefit targeted at families on low pay. In effect, it is an implicit recognition that certain working families are unable to meet their everyday household expenses without Government assistance.

Yet not all families in receipt of this supplement will get the basic clothing and footwear allowance because the eligibility cut-off point for the allowance is lower than that for family income supplement.

While the Minister is considering reforming the benefits situation for families on low pay, and Barnardos recommends that this should be a priority in the next budget, the fact is that today there are still thousands of families on low pay struggling to make the sums add up before their children go back to school.

The question that remains to be answered is - where are families to get the additional money they need?

The social welfare route is effectively blocked off and we know from research that it can be difficult for families on social welfare or low pay to avail of legitimate means of credit.

In response to this, Mr Brennan called on the banks and other lending institutions to make credit more available to families on low income.

It will be interesting to see if the banks and other lending institutions heed his words. Barnardos recommends the Minister extend to the clothing and footwear allowance to all families in receipt of FIS.

Even for families not facing the challenges of very low incomes, children returning to school can present the kind of arithmetic problems they last experienced in a maths class. For example, a family with one child entering secondary school faces a book bill of €300 - the equivalent of the household food shopping bill for two weeks. Two children in secondary school can mean spending over €500 on books.

School book rental schemes drastically reduce the cost of books to parents but currently operate on an ad hoc basis. There is an opportunity for Minister Mary Hanafin to resource adequately all schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, to implement a school book rental scheme.

Research has found that where a school book rental scheme is in operation, it has "a positive effect on the child's educational attainment and provided a welcome reduction in the financial burden on families".

Childhood has a worth in itself - it is not merely the waiting period before adulthood - and childhood is the time when we learn the most. All our children deserve to be cherished equally and that means equality of opportunity regardless of parental economic status.

Norah Gibbons is director of advocacy with Barnardos