Irish Times view on back-to-school costs: the fallacy of ‘free’ education

One-third of parents expect to have to take out loans to meet anticipated costs

Early education is theoretically “free” in this State, but parents have to pay for schoolbooks and materials, along with uniforms and footwear. Limited, special allowances are available to poorer families but “voluntary” school contributions and educational trips add to financial pressure. File photograph: Getty Images

Early education is theoretically “free” in this State, but parents have to pay for schoolbooks and materials, along with uniforms and footwear. Limited, special allowances are available to poorer families but “voluntary” school contributions and educational trips add to financial pressure. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Anything that makes education harder to access for families under financial pressure should receive urgent Government attention. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Year after year, surveys conducted by the Irish League of Credit Unions and by the children’s charity Barnardos have identified problems facing parents of primary and secondary school students in meeting back-to-school costs. Early education is theoretically “free” in this State, but parents have to pay for schoolbooks and materials, along with uniforms and footwear. Limited, special allowances are available to poorer families but “voluntary” school contributions and educational trips add to financial pressure.

On a positive note, back-to-school costs have fallen during the past year because of reductions in transport costs and after-school care.

Education provides an entry gateway to employment and State investment over many decades has supported economic development and rising living standards. Many families from socially deprived areas have not, however, benefited from this rising tide and their needs should receive greater attention in terms of teacher resources and back-to-school funding. Otherwise, the stark divide that exists between participation rates at third level will persist.

Costs have been held down in some schools through the introduction of generic uniforms but more needs to be done

The credit union survey found that school costs have led an increasing number of families to moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates. The precise number is unclear, but it amounted to about 10 per cent of the survey sample. On a positive note, back-to-school costs have fallen during the past year because of reductions in transport costs and after-school care. In spite of that, one-third of parents expect they will have to take out loans to meet anticipated costs.

A common theme in both surveys involves complaints about the price of schoolbooks and writing materials – items that are provided free in Northern Ireland – along with school uniforms. Costs have been held down in some schools through the introduction of generic uniforms but more needs to be done. The health and potential of society are directly linked to equality of opportunity. In that regard, nothing is more important than a properly free and accessible education.

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