Despite the Constitution’s solemn pledge, Ireland has never had free primary education. For years parents have forked out on books, transport, “voluntary contributions” and fund-raising in order to help schools keep their heads above water. The latest research from the Irish League of Credit Unions estimates that those sending a child to primary school this year will pay an average of €1,195 while at second level the costs climb to €1,518.
Last week’s Budget, however, offers a tantalising glimpse of what a truly free primary education could look like. Primary pupils will receive free schoolbooks from next September. Costs have been waived for school transport. In addition, schools are sharing in a once off €90 million grant to pay for energy bills, the equivalent of a 40 per cent increase in capitation rates. While many principals say they will still be reliant on voluntary contribution to make up for financial shortfalls, primary schools are finally within sight of having the resources they actually need to make ends meet.
It is not before time. Ireland is finally catching up with what other developed countries have been providing for years – a genuinely free primary education. Ironically, some of the spending announcements – free schoolbooks which cost just over €40 million – are tiny in the context of a €10 billion education system. It is puzzling it has taken so long to reach this point. If these resources are maintained next year, it would go a long way towards a properly funded primary and, in time, second level system. Voluntary contributions, which put families under unfair pressure, could be done away with once and for all. Schools could focus fully on education rather than fund-raising. Costs would finally be removed as a barrier to education.
The Government will face a defining choice next year. It can withdraw one-off funding measures for schools. Or it can use additional funding as a floor on which to build a genuinely free education system. Ireland has a chance to deliver what other developed countries have offered for years.