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Survey finds school costs still too high

By Ann Marie Foley - 02 August, 2013

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Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD, has said a new Parents’ Charter, which could be written into law, will give parents a voice in dealing with the cost of school books and uniforms.

He was responding to the latest School Costs Survey (2013) by Barnardos which shows that the cost of school uniforms and books are still beyond the reach of many parents.

The €350 – €785 annual cost for primary and secondary school-goers respectively persists despite years of campaigning by both Barnardos and the SVP.

In some cases, money paid by the State to schools for books is being used for other purposes.

A key survey finding was that although there is a growing availability of school book rental schemes – 55% of parents have access to such a scheme in primary school, up from 50% in 2012 and 42% of parents had access to a scheme in secondary school, up from 40% in 2012; it is still by no means universal.

The survey revealed that there is an overriding sense of anger that not nearly enough is being done to address these costs by either the Government or at local level through the Patron Bodies, Boards of Management or Parents’ Associations.

Barnardos’ CEO, Fergus Finlay, said in response to the survey findings, “It is no longer acceptable for the Minister or the Department to be relying on an ‘arm’s length’ approach – they have to start issuing instructions to ensure that Boards of Management take their responsibilities seriously.”

He added, “Without spending an extra penny, a common-sense approach could well cut the cost of uniforms in half, and make significant inroads into the cost of books.”

In relation to books, Barnardos has suggested significant savings for parents can be made by introducing school book rental schemes as a step towards achieving free school books for all and eliminating the 23% VAT applicable on e-textbooks so that it is on par with printed textbooks which are exempt from VAT.

The School Costs Survey, now in its eighth year, revealed that there is continuing frustration among prents over the constant publication of new editions of textbooks which make reuse impossible. They are also concerned about teachers’ selection of expensive workbooks that can’t be recycled.

Another unnecessary cost relates to uniforms. The survey found there is anger at being unable to buy uniforms in high street shops – instead parents have to go to specific shops that charge much higher prices. Crested jumpers start at €45 for a secondary school pupil instead of €12 for plain jumper.

Barnardos has recommended that schools should reduce the uniform items with the school crest on them or switch to a plain coloured uniform.

Although these prices have stabilised somewhat since last year, parents’ own incomes have reduced. Furthermore, the support  through the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance was virtually halved in the last Budget. 

“It is unacceptable that these issues are raised every year as parents are crippled with the financial strain and not enough is being done to address this by the Government and educational bodies,” Mr Finlay said. 

“It is only increasing further inequality between pupils at a time when educating all our children should be a priority for the Government. School should be about ensuring children get the best education possible rather than ensuring they are wearing the full uniform.”

In June, the SVP Social Justice representatives spoke to an Oireachtas Committee on this issue. An Oireachtas Committee report which followed included many of SVP’s  concerns such as the costs of crested uniforms, unnecessary school book changes, the emergence of digital aids which in some instances has fuelled a rush for highend tablets, school trips, and voluntary contributions.

However, the SVP said it was disappointed that the critical issue of accountability in schools had been left vague.

“We all need to know who is responsible for policy at individual school level. While the Boards of Management are often tasked with decision-making, in reality it is the Patronage Bodies which set the agenda. This needs to clarified and changed, given that schools are in receipt of a large chunk of taxpayers’ money we need to be confident that they are doing all they can to be as cost conscious as possible to avoid extra expense for parents,” Audry Deane, SVP Social Justice spokesperson, said.

“We go further and say that the Minister for Education is the ultimate leader and must achieve the changes,” she added.

By Ann Marie Foley

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