The high price of Ireland’s ‘free’ education

It’s back to school time and we take a look at the cost of this period to parents.

Parents pay an average of €816 per primary school child each year, and €1,313 per secondary school child.

Every year for the guts of a decade, a back-to-school piece has appeared on the Pricewatch page, and every year we have highlighted how our “free” education system costs parents hundreds of euro each year.

Crested uniforms, high-priced books, bin-after-using workbooks, “voluntary” contributions: the years roll on but the words never change. Proposals are put on a table, promises are made but nothing much changes for parents in Ireland.

In the summer of 2013, the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection called for schools to be prohibited from insisting students wear expensive crested uniforms. It also sought the introduction of a universal schoolbook rental scheme, and said workbooks should be banned and voluntary contributions “greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited”.

The report warned that children whose parents struggle to pay for extracurricular activities or voluntary contributions were being stigmatised, and said the relationship between parents and their children’s school “should be educational, not financial”. While the sentiments expressed in the report were to be commended, nothing really happened. What is most frustrating is that a genuinely free primary school system could be implemented for a comparatively small amount of money. Last month the children’s charity Barnardos, which has long highlighted the high price of our education, calculated that it would cost €103.2 million to guarantee free access to education for all primary school children. This works out at €185 more per child.

If a government were willing to make this investment, it would cover all school books, school transport and classroom resources, while also restoring capitation grants to 2010 levels. An additional investment of €126.9 million would fund free secondary school: an extra €335 per student.

But the reality is that parents really have to fork out a lot more than these figures per child. A survey done by the Irish League of Credit Unions show that 81% of parents feel that back to school time is a huge financial burden and 32% are likely to get into debt in order to cover these costs.

In the survey, uniforms were found to be the most expensive items: the parents of primary school children spend an average of €166 per child and secondary school parents spend an average of €258 per child on uniforms. Books were the second most expensive item on the school shopping list: primary school parents shell out €106 on books and secondary school parents spend €213 on books. I2 years ago, €15 million was secured to expand book rental schemes in primary schools but little else seems to have been done to alleviate this cost. School lunches were the third most expensive item.

In recent years voluntary contributions have been introduced with secondary schools being most likely to request these. An average amount is €112 per child and this is before any extracurricular activities are taken into the equation. Nothing seems to be done about schools putting this extra pressure on parents, and some schools even go as far as sending constant reminders via the children and even identifying, in front of their classmates, the children whose parents have not paid the contribution.

Questions such as why parents here have to pay for school books when they are free in other parts of Europe and why parent A has to spend €50 on a crested jumper when parent B can buy a jumper for €10 and sew a crest on it, need to be asked. The school system is under resourced and the Department of Education appears to have a hands off approach to the provision of key things like school books and uniform policy in all schools.

However, in recent years there has been a little progress made as some of the costs have levelled off but the government has a long way to go to provide “free” education to the children of Ireland. The government are aware that lack of education is the cause of a lot of social problems which is why actions and not words are needed. How long do parents have to wait to see improvements in the education system ?

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