Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Managing Back to School Costs: Discussion
Members may recall initial plans to hold today's meeting on the topic of having local government input into the delivery of education. However, the proposed guests were not available. Instead we have decided to invite other guests to discuss managing or containing back-to-school costs. I welcome the representatives from CPMSA, the Church of Ireland, Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta, the IVEA and the joint managerial bodies. I hope I have not left anybody out.
I wish to draw the attention of the delegations to privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her, them or it identifiable.
I invite the groups to make their presentations and I remind them to speak for a maximum of five minutes each. I also remind them that we seek solutions and proposals rather than criticisms and that applies to the Members too. The presentations shall be followed by a question and answer session. We shall commence in the order that I read out earlier and I call on the representatives from the Catholic Primary School Management Association to make their presentation.
Ms Eileen Flynn:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to make a presentation here. As Members will know, the Catholic Primary School Management Association, CPSMA, represents the boards of management of 2,900 primary schools and provides a wide range of services to those schools.
The rising costs for parents whose children return to school in September is of major concern to us. Primary schools are can-do places and have a good relationship with parents and work closely with them. Issues of concern to parents are issues of concern to the boards of management. As a brief backdrop to the issue, one cannot consider the problems faced by parents without putting them in context. At present there is inadequate funding for primary schools so there is a direct correlation between funding for schools and costs borne by parents. Many schools are chronically under funded and when they are short they must go to the parent population - their nearest port of call - to make up the shortfall. I shall give a brief example. The capitation grant for primary schools was reduced over the past three years by €22 for pupils in a mainstream class and by €100 for a special child in a mainstream class. The way the capitation grant is paid also poses a problem for schools. It is paid in two moieties - the first arrives in June and the next arrives the following February. It is a bit like live horse and eat grass, one is left without a cashflow for that period each year.
A wonderful grant called the minor works grant - which we feel is under threat - used to arrive which gave a great cashflow opportunity to schools during the period when the capitation grant had well run out. It allowed schools to survive until the second capitation grant moiety was paid the following February. If one combines the capitation reduction and the potential loss of the minor works grant together one will find that a school of 100 pupils, which has five special needs pupils in mainstream education, will be down €10,000 in total. That is a significant drop in income in any school and where must the school turn to make that sum up, to the parents.
Additionally, there are changes in schools because they are treated like businesses. Therefore, they must pay charges for water, An Post and all of the usual utility bills for oil, heat, bin charges, fire certificates, fire alarm calls and their maintenance. Schools are treated as a business but being able to claim what businesses can claim is not the same thing. For example, schools cannot claim VAT expenses on purchases.
The CPSMA conducted a survey of its members to provide solutions - and that is what the committee asked for too - to issues that are of concern to parents. The two biggest cost factors identified were uniforms and books. It was suggested - and largely supported across the board - that parents should be allowed to buy uniforms in any main store and crests could be bought as a separate item thus enabling them to be sewed or stuck on and passed on to the next school jumper or cardigan that a pupil wears. Bulk buying was another suggestion. The notion of swapping uniforms and parents hosting recycling days for uniforms were also clearly indicated in responses received from parents as ways to cut costs. Sometimes people promote the idea of having no uniform but the notion was not quite what we thought it would work out to be. We asked about it but were told that it may seem attractive initially. However, when the yearly cost of providing clothes instead of a uniform was examined one was faced with peer pressure. Children wanted labels from high-end products sewn onto cheaper models and then they would wear them to school.
The next issue was books and book rental. The vast majority of schools seem to have a book rental scheme in place. Its set-up and maintenance costs are significant. Schools must find the money to continue with such schemes. It was suggested that publishers should bind their books properly thus ensuring that they last longer. It was also suggested that publishers should be asked not to update their books on a regular basis and for schools to examine their book policy. In other words, they should first ensure that there is a series of books available before making the decision to change. Perhaps they should also examine alternative ways of teaching the curriculum so that schools are not so dependent on textbooks or workbooks but instead use visualisers that are available through grants from the Department of Education and Skills and so on. Several suggestions were made along those lines.
The CPSMA has run procurement competitions. Schools were asked to sign up for the procurement of gas, oil and other requisites with the National Procurement Service. One school saved 40% because it joined a national procurement scheme to pay its bills. We encourage schools to examine the measure outlined in order that they do not pass their financial pressures on to their parent population through seeking voluntary contributions or other fund-raising exercises.
If schools can plan for what is required and spread it across the year then it might lighten the financial burden on parents. Schools in certain locations may find it more difficult to fund-raise. I hope that I have covered most of the issues.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
On behalf of the Church of Ireland private schools I thank the committee and the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to make a short presentation this morning. I am the Secretary to the Church of Ireland's General Synod Board of Education which is the board within the church's structures that has responsibility for its education policy. In that capacity the board represents the interests of the Church of Ireland in education and also provides an advisory service to the boards of management of Church of Ireland primary schools. To some extent I shall echo what Ms Flynn has said.
While schools under Presbyterian, Methodist or Quaker patronage have their own boards of education, the board also provides support and advice to those schools. For the committee's information, there are ten bishops in the Church of Ireland who are patrons of their local diocesan Church of Ireland primary schools. We also liaise and advise them closely.
The schools that I represent can be outlined as follows. There are 200 Protestant primary schools in the State, 174 are Church of Ireland, 24 are Presbyterian and there is one that is Methodist and one is Quaker. Fifty of the schools are located in Dublin and the remainder are dispersed across the country and many are in rural locations.
In the course of this presentation I hope to describe the direct and indirect costs to parents that result from the costs of running schools. I will echo what Ms Flynn has said. The direct costs are items such as school books, art and stationery, materials, uniforms, costs associated with activities such as swimming and school tours, along with transport costs for those in rural areas. The committee will be aware of the recent survey conducted by Barnardos which advised that it costs €355 for a child to start junior infants and rises to €390 per year thereafter.
As Ms Flynn has said, school books are a significant cost for parents. Many of our schools operate a school book rental scheme where the schools buy books and rent them out. There is a cost incurred by the school but it is a good endeavour in the long run. I wish to express our thanks to the Department of Education and Skills for its book rental scheme guidelines for schools that it issued recently as it has done so for the past couple of years. Schools have told me that they find the guidelines useful. I also thank the Minister for initiating a review of the operation of the school book scheme. Again, schools have told me that they have also found it useful.
A major issue faced by parents living in rural areas is the provision and increase in the cost of school transport. In 2011 a charge of €50 per child for the provision of school transport was introduced and budget 2012 raised it to €100 per child. It constitutes a significant increase over a short period. In 2011, changes to the eligibility criteria in respect of the retention of a school bus service has resulted in the loss, or projected loss, of a large number of school buses representing a significant hardship to the affected parents. We are advised that the grant provided to parents in lieu of the provision of a school bus falls far short of the cost to provide a private bus, instead of the main bus, or to cover the cost of getting a child to school by alternative means. There is also the cost of fuel. The recent changes to the school transport scheme have inflicted an inequitable hardship on parents and children attending schools in rural areas. This matter is of particular interest to the Protestant minority.
As Ms Eileen Flynn stated, the practice in respect of school uniforms varies widely. I am advised that many of our school have moved away from the idea of a special school uniform and now opt for generic clothing that can be purchased relatively cheaply from large retailers and the crest can be affixed later. Some schools have moved from a school uniform entirely and boards tell me this is a conscious effort on their part to reduce costs for parents. I am advised also that some of our schools operate a recycling shelf for school uniforms for children leaving and children coming in, which they found reduces costs considerably. The supply of stationery, art equipment, bags, etc., constitute further direct costs for parents. The current curriculum introduced in 1989 requires art resources. The State does not provide additional funding for this. In most of our schools, the parents' associations are the major supporter for financing these items. The boards of management also rely on the parents' associations to support activities such as swimming or school trips. Parents' associations are also experiencing the effects of the recession with fund raising becoming more difficult, as members will appreciate. I am aware of at least one area of the country where school boards of management have been assisted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in regard to funding school related activities. School principals also advise me that they are conscious of giving plenty of notice to parents if they are planning a school trip.
While a child's back-to-schools needs may be reduced by cheaper uniforms and book rental schemes and so on, it is important to mention that these costs occur throughout the year and are not a once-off expense. Indirect costs fall to parents arising out of the running of a school. The responsibility for the running of a school or a primary school rests with the board of management of the school receiving funding from the Department of Education and Skills in two main ways, through specific grants for ancillary staff, such as a caretaker and secretary, and capitation funding, which is the amount received per child. As Ms Flynn outlined this will be reduced incrementally by 7.5% by 2015. From our point of view, this represents a major decrease in the core funding of Irish primary schools. In addition, the minor works grant will cease. Schools relied heavily on this grant to fund works during the year. There will also be a VAT increase to 23%. As a possible solution, I wonder if the State could consider applying a reduced rate of VAT to schools. That would greatly assist schools.
The administrative fees for substitution will be reduced by 3%. Fuel and electricity costs in schools and the costs of refuse, recycling and insurance are ever increasing. Schools advise me that insurance ranges from between €4,000 to €6,000 per annum, which is not unusual. There will be an increase in water rates. One of our schools was charged €270 for the month of July when the school was closed. Cleaning is also expensive and the ancillary grant does not usually cover the cost of cleaning. Security is becoming a major issue in schools and this puts another cost on schools. In respect of the cost of the school office, the ancillary grant does not normally pay for the cost of the secretary, the caretaker, the cleaner and security. In addition, given increasing legislative requirements, we must meet the cost of professional advice.
I am aware that many schools have annual deficits of between €10,000 and €20,000 or perhaps more and this is not unusual. This deficit can only be defrayed by seeking contributions from parents and fund-raising while seeking an emergency loan from the patron and the parish. Boards of management are bracing themselves for further announcements in regard to cuts in December, given that we were told last year that the overall target reduction in the budget was €138 million by 2014. Schools also advise us that grant money does not arrive until the end of the year, putting pressure on the cash flow of the schools, with electricity, heating, insurance and so on being paid throughout the year. I wonder if it is possible that funding would be made available throughout the year. Could the Department look at this as a way of helping schools?
While these are not direct costs on parents a shortfall in funding from the State to defray these costs in the schools seeking financial assistance in this regard from parents is the only way that schools can turn. I suggest that boards of management and parents' associations currently use their best endeavours to reduce costs and to fund-raise to support both activities in the school and the running costs of the school. In addition, both school management bodies and the Department of Education and Skills through the procurement services have been endeavouring to encourage schools to use procurement to try and reduce costs to individual schools further. However, the shortfall between the support provided by the State and the rising cost of expenditure faced by schools contributes significantly to the real cost associated with maintaining the child in the school.
Support supplied by the State is standard even though costs can be different across the country. Schools in wealthier sections of the community have a greater capacity to fund-raise than others. I wonder if the Department would consider some differentiation on the grounds of geographical area. We sent out a survey to all our schools on this. One treasurer came back to me with the response that as far as he was concerned school treasurers, principals, boards of management are planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Ms Colette Kavanagh:
My name is Colette Kavanagh and I am the principal of Esker Educate Together national school in Adamstown. There is a deep appreciation among teacher and principals that parents are struggling with the rising cost of sending their children to primary school. School communities are constantly struggling to come up with innovative ways to reduce these costs to parents and yet to ensure the school itself remains solvent and keeps up-to-date with the newest innovations. It is generally felt, as the two previous speakers said, that primary schools are seriously underfunded and the boards of management have no option but to go back to the parents to fund-raise. The capitation in primary schools is far lower than that in secondary schools, yet it costs the same to heat, run and maintain a building be it a primary or second level school.
We accept that primary schools are overstretched due to underfunding yet we recognise there are current restraints on public spending. Principals and patrons can and do make efforts to lighten the load for parents as much as possible. Both previous speakers discussed the book rental scheme. That is the single most efficient way to help to reduce costs to parents. Any textbook that is not a workbook, that is a book in which children do written work, is purchased in advance by the school, using the book grant scheme and parents pay a quarter of the cost for that year. After four or five years, we buy a new stock of books. It has the advantage that we buy in bulk so that the costs are reduced. When publishers bring out another edition, we are at an advantage because we have the stock of books and every child has the same book for four to five years. Work parties of teachers and parents get together, cover the books and maintain them. It is a way that parents can be involved in schools, without asking them to pay. It does not cost money to volunteer.
We would encourage schools to work as far as possible to implement this low cost book scheme for parents, through careful management of the book grant for schools. The books grant itself is used to support the buying of books or the renting of book for parents who cannot afford to buy. It is also used to help to buy in schemes at the beginning of the year and to support the cost of running the books scheme, replacing lost or damaged books or covering the books. With the renewed emphasis on literacy in schools, the book grant is essential to enable schools to purchase sets of books to do lift off to literacy or read and recovery initiatives that schools have been asked to do. Any reduction in that grant would materially affect school's ability to make improvement in their literacy as required by the literacy and numeracy strategy. It would also be helpful to schools if the books scheme grant was paid in June of the previous year so that a stock of books could be available to the school to begin in September.
Parents still have to purchase books. They get the book list well in advance and by September they usually have bought the books. Many schools are re-examining the educational value of many of the workbooks. We are trying to reduce the number of workbooks that are used in schools for educational as well for economic reasons. Some of our parent teacher associations run a book club apart from the book scheme which encourages parents to pay in on a monthly basis, similar to a Christmas club, and at the end of the year, they have paid for their books in June. The PTA buys in bulk with the money parents have paid in advance.
Other contributors have raised the issue of the materials money. Parents have to pay to rent books, for personal accident insurance, the cost of materials, class stationery, art, photocopying and so on and schools find it is harder to collect the money for these sundries.. We find that parents buy the books from the book list, but the more we put books on to the book rental scheme we find it more difficult to get the money in from it. It is now common practice for a number of parents to pay this charge for materials in staged payments, perhaps a monthly payment or a payment per term. Perhaps it could be formalised at the beginning of the year that parents could chose to opt to pay for materials yearly, monthly or by the term, so that they do not have to talk to the principal or negotiate the terms of payment.
Educate Together primary schools do not have a uniform, but parents must still clothe their children and buy shoes and coats. The initial outlay of buying an expensive school uniform in September does not exist for our parents.
Irish primary schools have a history of fund-raising by parents. As we all know, this may no longer be viable in communities where families are overstretched. In my school, the majority of our children come from international families, and the fund-raising ethic, so part of the norm in Irish schools, is unknown to our parents. They do not realise schools need to fund-raise. I will not say they resist it, but they find it a very unusual thing to have to do. Consequently, it is more difficult for us to raise funds among our parents. Educate Together advises that schools do not fund-raise in September and any fund-raising that is necessary should be strategically planned throughout the school year.
Some schools raise money through an annual voluntary contribution, others do this monthly and others run what they call "small change Friday" whereby parents send in loose change each week, which is a bit messy but works for some schools. We hope that any such contributions are strictly voluntary and that there is neither pressure on parents to contribute nor reminders sent to individual families in respect of these voluntary contributions.
Ms Colette Kavanagh:
I echo the argument on public procurement made by Ms Flynn. Educate Together recently introduced it for its schools but patrons need to sell it more to schools and boards of management. The establishment of the 16 education and training boards to replace the 33 voluntary education committees should generate substantial savings in administration costs to the Department. Educate Together argues that such savings should be retained in the education budget and used to increase the subventions paid directly to schools and-or to reinstate the minor works grant. This additional income stream to schools would reduce the fund-raising burden on parents.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gcoiste as ucht an chuiridh a thabhairt dúinn páirt a ghlacadh anseo. Déanfaidh mé iarracht fanacht taobh istigh de chúig nóiméad. Tá go leor den méid atá le rá agam ráite cheana ag láithreoirí eile, ach ba mhaith liom cur le sin.
Aithníonn ár scoileanna an brú atá ar thuismitheoirí agus tá a lán iarrachtaí déanta acu freastal ar thuismitheoirí chun an costas agus na táillí atá le n-íoc acu a laghdú. Le sin, an cheist is minicí a thagann ó thuismitheoirí ná cén fáth nach bhfuil go leor ins an deontas caipitíochta chun gach costas a chlúdach. Sin an pointe céanna atá ag teacht aníos arís agus arís eile. Ní thuigeann na tuismitheoirí é seo agus tá brú ollmhór orthu. Sin ráite, tar éis dul i dteagmháil leis na scoileanna, tháinig tuairimí ar ais ar dhá ábhar. Ar dtús, conas laghdú a dhéanamh ar na costais agus ansin, an cineál bainistiú a dhéantar air.
Maidir le bainistiú ar an airgead, moladh gan aon airgead a lorg ó thuismitheoirí i mí Mheán Fómhair. Dar leis na scoileanna, an príomh rud ó thaobh na dtuismitheoirí de ghnáth ná go mbeadh éadaí scoile cearta ag na leanaí agus iad ag filleadh. Bíonn tuismitheoirí ag buiséadú le haghaidh an t-airgead atá le caitheamh. Muna bhfuil le ceannach acu ná le híoc amach i Meán Fómhair agus roimhe sin ach éide scoile agus na billí leabhar, tá sé níos éasca bainistiú. Mar sin, cuirtear amach bille na bliana ag deireadh Mheáin Fómhair nó i dtreo tús Dheiridh Fómhair.
Chomh maith le sin, ó thaobh buiséadú de, ba cheart go ndéanfadh na scoileanna iarracht costas iomlán na bliana a chur amach chuig tuismitheoirí ag tús na bliana, ionas go bhfeicfidís cén costas atá le n-íoc acu ar feadh na bliana agus gur féidir bainistiú a dhéanamh air. Tá seo níos éasca ag an mhúinteoir ranga agus an scoil a dhéanamh anois faoi chóras bainistíochta ar nós Chipmunk nó Aladdin. Is féidir le páistí airgead a thabhairt isteach go seachtainiúil, mar a dúradh, is féidir é a chlárú ar an gcóras ríomhaire, agus tá sé níos éasca a bhainistiú. Laghdaíonn seo an t-ualach.
Maidir le néadaí scoile, níor tháinig an argóint tríd fáil réidh le héadaí scoile. Chonaic tuistí an luach a bhí le h-eádaí scoile agus culaith scoile a choinneáil mar laghdaíonn siad an comórtas idir páistí i dtaobh lipéid agus brandáil agus gach rud mar sin. Ceann de na rudaí is daoire a tugadh faoi deara ná costas an gheansaí scoile nó an chóta scoile le suaitheantas na scoile air. Dá mbeadh próiseas éigin ann chun gur féidir suaitheantas níos saoire, nó suaitheantas gur féidir a aistriú, a fháil, cabhródh sin. Mar shampla, tá duine in ann geansaí scoile a fháil ó €12 suas go dtí €40. Nuair atá suas le ceathrar páistí i gclann, tá sin an-chostasach.
Maidir le scéim iasachta leabhair, tá scéim ag formhór na scoileanna agus moltar go hard é. Laghdaíonn sé costais go mór, mar atá ráite, agus ní rachfaidh mé isteach ar sin. Ceann de na leabhair is costasaí ná an leabhar oibre. Tá a lán dár scoileanna ag féachaint anois ar laghdú ar úsáid na leabhair oibre, mar tá ceisteanna ann maidir lena bhfiúntas. Freisin, nuair a ceannaítear iad, íocann an tuismitheoir méid áirithe airgid ar leabhair oibre agus tá saghas brú ar an mhúinteoir an leabhar sin a bheith líonta i rith na bliana. Tá ceisteanna á chur faoin bhfiúntas oideachasúil atá leo. Tá laghdú ina dtreo sin.
Maidir leis an deontas caipitíochta, aontaím le gach rud atá ráite maidir leis an laghdú ar an deontas seo. Sin ráite, bhí moladh ann ó thaobh bhainistithe agus íocaíochta an deontais. Tagann an brú ar na scoileanna i Mí Mheán Fómhair. Níl aon airgead acu ansin agus tá siad ag lorg an airgid ó na tuismitheoirí. Dá n-íocfaí an deontas caipitíochta ag deireadh Mhí Lúnasa nó ag tús Mheáin Fhómhair nuair atá airgead ag teastáil ó na scoileanna, b'fhéidir go laghdódh sin an brú atá orthu láithreach airgead a lorg ó thuismitheoirí, mar bheadh an sreabhadh airgid sin acu chun feidhmiú. Bíonn airgead caite i rith an tsamhraidh ag íoc as deisiúcháin agus rudaí mar sin. Ceann de na moltaí a bhí ann ná go n-íocfaí é ag deireadh Mhí Lúnasa agus deireadh Mhí Feabhra.
Taobh amuigh de sin, tá na pointí eile déanta ag daoine eile.
Mr. David Campbell:
I am the principal of Scoil Gráinne community national school and, like Ms Kavanagh, I have a day off school today, so I thank the committee. In listening to the previous submissions I am happily and unhappily struck by the consistency of the ideas, happily because it means we are on the right track, but unhappily because all of my good points have been stolen. Rather than labouring over the points made in our submission and parroting the previous speakers, I ask the committee's indulgence as I examine the case study of a child in school.
In the time-honoured tradition of teachers we will call the child "little Johnny". All teachers will be familiar with Johnny as he is used to train them on classroom management. He is normally the boy at the back of the class who misbehaves. However, in this situation Johnny is very good, and in fact he is a model pupil. Unfortunately, Johnny's parents have fallen into a tight spot financially. Not unlike many other people they have lost their jobs. Imagine it is August and the start of term is approaching. The school has very helpfully sent a letter to remind mammies and daddies about the children's needs for the start of term. Johnny's parents go through the list in the letter item by item. First is the book list, which involves traipsing from shop to shop ensuring all the workbooks and textbooks are bought. Enterprisingly, Johnny's mammy has been able to get them for €100, which is not too excessive. Next comes the uniform, which can be bought in only one shop. New shoes are also needed and these and the uniform amount to €150. Added to this are the schoolbag, lunchbox, pens, pencils and copies, which amount to another €50. This adds up to a considerable amount, but on top of this schools ask parents for a contribution to the pupil personal accident insurance fund and arts and for crafts money, which is another €15, and to round it off to the nearest €100 parents will probably be asked for €85 as a voluntary contribution. All of this adds up very quickly and amounts to €400.
There is nothing excessive about what has been mentioned so far.
That is not atypical of many schools. While parents may be able to avail of the back to school allowance of €150, it still leaves a substantial bill for somebody with zero income every week and it adds to pressure they do not particularly need with ideas that their child does want to be ostracised and so on. Basically, the kernel of our suggestions is that schools should prepare for the start of the year as communities rather than individuals where schools purchase everything in bulk and are, therefore, saving through economy of scale. We have started down this road in that we purchase in our school books, copybooks, workbooks, textbooks, pens, pencils, crayons and so on and we have noticed obvious benefits from that.
One of the points that has been made again and again, and it is no harm repeating it, is that VAT is payable on everything a school buys. If we did not have to pay it and the good and kind people of the Oireachtas managed to exempt schools from VAT, that would significantly and dramatically decrease the costs for all concerned because, as mentioned, one cannot examine the increasing costs for parents in isolation from the broader ecosystem of the costs of education generally.
I remind committee members of the privileged position in which they find themselves. They have at their disposal an extraordinary power of persuasion and acts as simple as asking energy companies to come in and explain what they think they can do to lower the costs for schools could do an enormous amount of good. I urge them not to underestimate their power to make a positive impact.
Fr. Paul Connell:
I am president of the Joint Managerial Body, JMB, and principal of St. Finian's College, Mullingar. I thank the committee for the opportunity to address members.
The JMB was founded in 1972 to represent the interests of all voluntary secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland. It advises, supports and negotiates on behalf of the boards of management and school management in the 380 voluntary secondary schools. The JMB welcomes this opportunity to participate in the examination of the rising costs faced by parents every year when sending children back to school. It is the strongly held view of the JMB that every effort must be made to ensure costs are kept to a minimum for all parents in order that children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential during their time in the education system. This issue can only be tackled by a collaborative approach by all stakeholders, including the Government.
The Government needs to recognise that the historical starvation of resources to the education system has been exacerbated by the recent and further projected budgetary reductions for schools. The country has lingered for many years in the bottom rankings of the OECD table for funding of the first and second level education system. If that was not bad enough, in 2010, schools received no increase in capitation, a 5% reduction in 2011, followed by a further 2% decrease in 2012 with a projected decrease in 2013 of 2% followed by a 1% reduction in both 2014 and 2015. These reductions in funding to schools means that a secondary school with 400 pupils lost €12,400 in income alone as a result of the budget cuts in 2011 and 2012. A secondary school of 600 pupils lost €18,600 in the same period with a school of 800 pupils losing €24,800. How is a school to replace this financial loss when basic costs such as electricity, oil, gas, water, refuse charges and insurance have soared in the same period and must be met from its capitation grant?
The regrettable answer is that management in a secondary school can only respond in one way to this loss of income and that is to seek the assistance of parents through either fund-raising ventures or voluntary contributions. Research conducted by the JMB indicates that, on average, more than 30% of a secondary school's annual expenditure must be raised through local sources. In other words, central Government has decided that the school community must raise €3 out of every €10 locally. Thus, in the view of the JMB, the main burden for parents in sending their children to school is created by the Government policy to grossly underfund schools. There are no bailouts for schools, so school management has no option but to look to parents to provide the funding to balance the school accounts on an annual basis. In addition, the loss of the summer works scheme has created more pressure for schools as now essential repairs to the school buildings must come from the already overstretched school budget. The situation is even more severe for the voluntary secondary sector when one realises that, in the case of the average 400-pupil school, a voluntary secondary school inexplicably continues to receive €90 per pupil less each year than a comparable community and comprehensive school and €212 per pupil less than a vocational school. This results from a decision by Government to underfund secondary schools at the time of the introduction of the free scheme in 1967.
Turning to the issue of procurement, the JMB welcomes the motivation behind the setting up of a national procurement service, NPS. It is in the interest of everyone associated with schools that best value for money forms the basis of all spending. However, to date, schools have found two critical problems with the NPS, namely, the slow and cumbersome process involved in establishing the service and the high levels of bureaucracy associated with the process. An over burdened school management will simply not be able to cope with the mechanics of a NPS without a major streamlining of the process. Oil and electricity make perfect sense nationally but we also have to be conscious of the local economy, which must be taken into account.
Apart from the requirement to shore up the school budget as a result of Government policy, the other main costs for parents are books and uniforms. The JMB in a submission last June to the Department of Education and Skills consultation process on school book grants and rental schemes agreed with the overall aim of this initiative, that is, to reduce the cost to parents of school books. The JMB acknowledged the progress made by the Minister in the establishment of a code of practice in respect of publishers and on the protection of funding for book grants to schools for 2012. There, nonetheless, remain some challenges to be overcome in respect of equity and implementation which require comment and these were the focus of the JMB submission. It is unarguable that book rental costs less to families than buying new texts. No school wishes to add pressure to parents but the figures released to the media stating that a year's books could be provided by schools for a tiny fraction of their cost are unrealistic. Where such is being achieved, it can safely be assumed that the scheme is well beyond its seed phase and other reliable sources of funding are being sourced.
However, the JMB acknowledges the publication of draft guidelines for book rental schemes. The staffing demands of such schemes will require engagement on the part of parents as current ancillary staffing in schools, as well as the moratorium on posts of responsibility, militates against a wholly school-staffed solution. In this respect, we welcome the engagement of the NPC in the development of these guidelines. However, the JMB must put on record the following serious reservations for schools regarding the feasibility of trying to establish a book rental scheme at this moment in time: the initial cost of setting up book rental schemes is very high - in the case of my school alone, I estimate that to be €100,000; schools do not have the resources in terms of personnel to operate the scheme - all our middle management posts have been abolished and will not be replaced; there is no space in the school to store the books; more important, the implementation of the reforms at junior cycle will result in new syllabi being introduced across 21 subjects between 2014 and 2017 so it would be ridiculous for a school to spend, say, €100,000 putting together a book grants scheme only to discover in three or four years the books were obsolete; and schools are exploring the introduction of technology such as e-books.
Fr. Paul Connell:
Yes. The next section is the important bit.
It is, therefore, important that policy makers appreciate the work involved in running, yet alone establishing, a book rental scheme. We advocate careful consideration of the above points before coming to any decision about the future of the school book grant and a school book rental scheme. We see e-solutions as a good way forward. It will have the additional benefits of introducing IT as a core part of learning, reducing the weight of school bags and eventually reducing costs to parents.
With regard to uniforms, I echo the comments of previous contributors. Consultation between parents and schools is close on this issue and we all do as much as we can to reduce the cost of uniforms. We share everybody's concerns.
In considering the issue, recognition must be given to the bad financial situation of our schools in the voluntary sector and the serious concerns of boards of management about keeping their schools running.
I join the Chairman in welcoming the organisations before us and I thank them for taking the time to appear before the committee to give us the benefit of their experience of the costs involved in parents sending pupils to school and in the challenges that will arise in that regard in the coming years. I also thank them for their suggestions on how it can be addressed and improved. It has become more and more difficult in the past three years to manage schools, with costs, subsidies and grants from the Government having taken a hit in successive budgets. It has become correspondingly difficult for parents because of the increased burden placed on the communities surrounding the schools to make up the shortfall to maintain the level of service that has been provided.
Surveys show the key costs in pupils returning to school are uniforms and book costs. An issue that is not being addressed this morning is the cost of students in the third level sector. Many families may have children at primary, secondary and third levels and the cost to such families becomes oppressive at third level.
The comments on the school books scheme were particularly interesting. Where one can be set up, it can have an impact on reducing the cost of books to families. Ms Kavanagh referred to the Educate Together school in Adamstown and the fact that the scheme costs one quarter of the cover costs of books. Fr. Connell referred to an example of a school where the set-up costs were €100,000. Perhaps Ms Kavanagh can comment on how to get to the stage where the scheme is up and running without such oppressive costs at the outset.
Fr. Connell referred to reform of the junior certificate. From first to third year, there will be a complete change starting in 2014 and running to 2020 across a range of subjects. It will pose real challenges for parents and schools in terms of the cost involved. That must be given significant attention.
Regarding school uniforms, experiences are different among the witnesses. Some have none and Ms Flynn referred to the existence of peer pressure in schools with no uniforms. I am interested in further comments on that point.
Some pupils in lower infant classes have to leave school at 2 p.m., which has become more of an issue in the past two years. In the past, schools managed the pupils between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., when family members were not able to pick them up or avail of public transport. Anecdotally, it is becoming a flashpoint in some schools.
The code of practice agreed with book publishers seems to be working well. Is that also the experience of the witnesses?
I thank the witnesses for coming in for this important debate. Parents face major challenges as the cost of sending children to school is increasing. With a reduction in the education budget, there will be an increased cost for parents, who can expect a figure in the region of €77 million. This is separate to the multi-annual reductions announced last year, such as the capitation grant. We must look at solutions in a different light because it is important to reduce the cost to parents as much as possible. Many of the solutions were the same across all presentations. However, there are different challenges to parents in terms of costs. For instance, Dr. Fennelly referred to school transport being a significant issue for parents in rural areas, whereas it is not a factor in urban areas. In Educate Together schools, the cost of school uniforms is not an issue. While there are different pressures in terms of the cost to parents, some of the solutions could be implemented across the board.
Regarding VAT rates for schools, is there any research on how much schools will save if it was abolished? What is the amount of money paid by schools? It will vary across the board but it may be significant in helping schools to manage budgets.
In respect of start-up costs, I am interested in the figure of €100,000, referred to by Fr. Connell. It is not feasible for schools to raise that amount of money. If it was possible, it would alleviate the costs for parents. Do the witnesses have any suggestions on how to overcome the obstacle? Junior certificate reform will make it more difficult to get to that position. Educate Together is in a position where 25% of costs are passed on to parents. Is there anything the Department can do to help schools to get from the start-up process to being able to implement the scheme very well?
I thank the witnesses for attending to discuss this issue. The premise is that we want to come up with solutions and work together. This is not a finger-pointing exercise but a collaborative approach to finding solutions. The suggestions made have been practical and positive.
On the issue of books, DEIS primary schools receive €21 per student and non-DEIS schools receive €11 per student. Some 25% of schools are not running book rental schemes. Can the patron bodies give me an indication of why that is the case?
I am interested to hear about the Educate Together policy of no uniforms in schools. Do other patron bodies provide direction, make suggestions or have policies on the issue of crested jumpers, jackets and tracksuits? Has a policy framework been devised to encourage and direct schools in respect of uniform policy, as Educate Together has done? I am a former school principal and I am a believer in school uniforms for various reasons.
They reduce peer pressure. My personal opinion is that there is also a health and safety aspect to the wearing of uniforms. As has been outlined, some parents must go to a particular store to buy a designated jumper. That puts a cost on the uniform, which is not necessarily fair in any circumstance, particularly not in the current circumstances.
On the question of voluntary contribution, everybody present admits that schools are, and always have been, chronically underfunded. I do not believe anybody will deny that. The manner in which voluntary contributions are collected is the issue. If somebody has the means and wants to contribute to the school and wants to contribute to a fund-raiser, be it that we should not be required to have fund-raisers, that is all very well, but there have been suggestions and indications given to public representatives that schools are being quite aggressive in targeting certain students and parents telling them they have not returned their "voluntary contribution". Will the patron bodies give a direction to the schools as to how that should be done properly?
It may sound silly to raise the issue of Christmas presents. Every year it comes up it is suggested to parents to give a present to teacher. Can we give directions to our schools to stamp out that unnecessary practice? There are the small little pressures that come up every year or at the end of year.
The witnesses have made very practical suggestions on public procurement and workbooks, on capitation payment at the end of August and September and on bulk buying. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien made a suggestion in regard to VAT on energy consumption and I believe that is an issue we can work on.
We have benefited from this conversation and I appreciate the contributions.
Ms Colette Kavanagh:
My school is relatively new and this is our sixth year in operation. Each year we have used our book grant to purchase all the books for a specific subject, for example one year we purchased all the history books, the following year we purchased all the science books and so on. Gradually parents had a lower book bill, as they had to pay for fewer books as the years went on. We get parents to pay a rental charge of a quarter of the value of the books. In second level schools, it would be very different as teachers may want to use different schemes in their classrooms. I can understand how it would be much different.
The question of after school care was also raised. The cost of after-school care is a major issue. I know that Educate Together is looking at forging a relationship between its school and a not-for-profit organisation, where the schools could be used as a venue for after-school child care at a reduced cost. We think that is a very good initiative if we can help parents with after-school child care without being involved. Obviously we cannot do it ourselves, it has to come from somebody else.
There is an initiative in Lucan, which has five Educate Together schools called "time banking", where parents, teachers and children all can donate time to the school - Mr. David Campbell referred to schools as communities - where people work for the school and help to run after-school clubs. If one gives an hour of one's time then one gets an hour's worth of service. Let us take the example of a mother who works in the after-school club on a Monday, she can get an hour's "time banking" for her child on another day. Parents are working toward giving to the school but also getting something that has a value for them as a result.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
It is relatively new. The Minister reached an agreement with the publishers relatively recently. We were impressed by the agreement that books will not be changed within a period of five years of first being published. That is to be welcomed and it is very helpful. The danger in the past was that particular sections or chapters were changed, which could lead to the entire book having to be replaced.
Mr. Michael Moriarty:
Having listened to the debate, two issues arise. First, how can the State lessen the burden on the school? If the burden is on the school it transfers to the parents. If one orders fuels costing €2,000 and the VAT rate of 23% applies it amounts to €460 in VAT, which is very significant. Then the school must pay for water rates, public utilities and other charges. The cost of running a school has become prohibitive. The school must function and must pay its bills. The load then transfers to the local community. If the school is located in a well-off area, the burden is not as great but if it is in a disadvantaged area then there are serious issues with equity. The State can examine and make provision for lightening the burden on the school management.
Second, there is a cost in sending children to school. Schools are tying to be creative in meeting these costs. I like the collaborative approach Deputy Ó Ríordáin mentioned. There is much we can do to try to develop that. Uniforms act as a leveller and stop fashion parades. The idea of a generic uniform with the logo or crest being affixed is a simple solution which will benefit everybody.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin asked whether patron bodies have a policy or give directions about crested uniforms and jackets. I know the position of Educate Together but I ask the other patrons to respond to this question. Has the joint managerial body issued instructions to its schools on this issue?
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
We would advise that a conversation takes place at local level between management and the parents' association. There are a variety of customs and practices and tradition and it is best for decisions to be made at local level with a view to ensuring that cost is kept to a minimum. It is important to make the point about designer labels. We hear from our schools about the fund-raiser of non-uniform days. We hear of the angst that non-uniform days causes to parents and most particularly to young people who have to appear in the various labels. We need to be careful in balancing the cost of a uniform and keeping it at a minimum while at the same time not swaying the balance in the other direction and putting additional costs on parents for labelled items.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
I have discussed this issue with the Church of Ireland bishops. They are very flexible. If a school wants to have no uniform and that is okay for them, that is fine. However, if a school wishes to have a uniform, that is also fine. The decision is one that is entirely up to those at local level. The patron would not impose a guidance in that sense. As Mr. Ferdia Kelly said, it is a decision for the local school but the Church of Ireland bishops are very flexible in that regard.
Ms Eileen Flynn:
We cannot mandate schools to do any particular thing but we can advise them. There is a fundamental issue that we might be missing, that is, encouraging schools to look at everything they are doing on a whole school basis at local level. For example, if one examines the building one is sitting in can one save energy? I know of one school in which every second florescent light was removed. Nobody missed it and it took €1,000 off the ESB bill. We can encourage children to look at how they can save energy by turning off lights, watching when they are using heat, having windows open while the heat is on - all things with which we are familiar - and to participate in the green schools initiative.
With regard to school books, there is a fundamental question to be asked where the local school population or community should look at the books they have listed as being required for the purposes of teaching the curriculum. Do they need them all, do they need them all now, can they get them on loan from each other?
Is there a dependence on text books and workbooks, as a component of teaching the curriculum? That is a challenge. We could look at this issue as well. We are mindful of advising schools to look at the economics of how they do their business, including all of the issues I outlined.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
I echo many of the points made by Mr. Ferdia Kelly and Ms Eileen Flynn. Many of the school under the patronage of An Foras Pátrúnachta are newer schools. There is the issue of identity and with that comes the uniform and the crest. There has been a move at local level to address the cost of the uniform and the trend has been to choose items such as trousers and tops that can be purchased in Dunnes Stores. The cost arises with the crest on the school jumper. Some schools have a mechanism for having a more cost effective crest and some do without a crest. This is an issue that is decided at local level with parents and management. Generally the decision is based on the parents' requirements. There are no guidelines on a uniforms.
Dr. Marie Griffin:
We would promote policy with the VEC schools, we would not direct them, no more than any other management body. At the start-up stage and in existing schools, we have the conversation with the parents and the local community. We always find that parents want a uniform because overall they find it cheaper than having to buy different sets of clothes over the school year. In terms of cost they would find it cheaper to have a uniform over the school year.
As a patron body we would promote book rental schemes and support schools in the start up phases of the rental scheme. Overall it is cheaper. We can, as a management body support schools as they start up and encourage them in that regard.
On the question of energy costs and other issues, we find that in all our schools we can effect significant savings in areas such as insurance through bulk procurement, also in print managed services and through using the national procurement service for energy and other costs. That has made significant savings for schools. These savings can be passed on to our primary schools as well.
Schools will face significant water charges in the future. While we would, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills, be engaged in processes such as water harvesting in our new schools and a number of other features, the costs for primary school children will be significant. In many cases it is double taxation for parents. They are paying the charge at home and now they will be paying in at school.
Fr. Paul O'Connell:
Changes in the VAT rate would make an incredible difference for secondary schools. In a secondary school, a fill of oil could be €20,000, therefore, one could see the benefit of removing VAT.
I would like the committee to take into account that we have moved on from physical text books. In secondary schools, there have been significant developments in teaching methodologies. We have IT in our classrooms and textbooks are an aid and not the whole story. It is now apparent that e-books are the way of the future. With link-ups to credit unions and various bodies there is a possibility to make it a great deal cheaper for parents.
I thank the witnesses for coming here today. I know they have put great deal of work into their presentations. They want to put their message across. However, all the delegates are singing from the same hymn sheet as they have all the same ideas and have collaborated on suggestions. I found it very interesting that Fr. O'Connell is the only person who has mentioned e-books. I would be a great promoter of e-books as it would greatly reduce the weight of the schoolbags and this would alleviate the causes of back problems. I would say that nearly every house has a computer. For the homes which do not have a computer, they would use school books. I believe e-books are the way to go.
I am a parent and my children have gone through all levels, junior, secondary and third level. I know exactly what it costs. I know the pressures on families. I did not have a Senator's wages and got no grants. It was tough to have to put the children through school, but we got there and thankfully the result is worth it.
I was on the board of management of a school in County Kerry which had a book rental scheme. When there was a change in one chapter of a book, the relevant chapter was printed again and given to the school children as an addition to the book so that they did not have to buy a new book. That is an idea that could be looked at.
In the current climate savings must be made. While we would very much like to increase the capitation grant, we cannot do that and the country is not in a position to do it. There is a return to the days of fund-raising. I am on the board of management of a national school which is located beside where I live. They do bag packing in Dunnes Stores to fund-raise and make quite a bit of money from it. There is a great deal of community involvement. The parents come in and see it as a day out and do not see it as going out on the streets and looking for money. They are doing something and they are getting paid for a service. It is a good fund-raiser.
We can certainly take up the issue of the VAT rate . It is a very good suggestion to consider ways that we can exempt the schools from VAT.
On the question of uniforms, when we moved to the country there was no uniform in the school but my children continued to wear the uniform from their previous school. Today that school has a uniform and I think it saves money. The pupils made their confirmation in the school uniform. That saved a great deal of money. I believe that uniforms are the way to go.
The awarding of a green flag is a great initiative for schools. I hoisted the green flag recently where the school was awarded it for water conservation. The children gathered lemonade bottles and put them into the cisterns, they also changed the taps to ones that go off automatically. Everybody knows that young children will leave taps running.
An issue that was raised recently with the board of management of which I am a member is the transportation of children to football matches, swimming and so on. The parents were grouping together and taking turns in driving them. This is now a major issue and parents are being advised not to do this, which is putting an extra cost on everybody. Now the school has to organise a bus to transport the children. We need to consider ways of having the parents help out.
Tá ceisteanna s'agamsa dírithe ar Chaoimhín Ó hEaghra agus baineann siad le gaelscoileanna. An bhfuil costais sa bhreis ar ghaelscoileanna, anuas ar ghnáth chostais ar scoileanna Béarla. Tagann téacsleabhair níos déanaí agus bíonn an cuma air go mbíonn siad níos daoire do thuismitheoirí. Chomh maith leis sin, an bhfuil costais taistil níos mó? I mo chás féin, mar shampla, toisc nach raibh mo pháistí ag freastail ar an scoil Béarla a bhí thíos an bóthar uainn bhí orainn íoc as bus difriúil seachas an ceann a bhí ar fáil ar an phas a bhí ag teacht ón Roinn. An bhfuil cúrsaí mar an gcéanna timpeall na tíre?
Bhíodh fíric ann uair amháin go raibh céatadán níos mó de sheomraí ranga réamhdhéanta ins na gaelscoileanna ná mar ba ghnách i scoileanna eile. Bíonn costais bhreise ag baint le seomraí réamhdhéanta chun iad a choimeád téite.
The issue of uniforms was raised. I have two sons, and each goes to a different secondary school, but it cost €60 for a jumper with a badge.
For a green or blue jumper with a badge stuck on, that is a living disgrace. I urge all of the organisations representing schools to bulk buy badges and give them out at a nominal price or free in order that parents can sew them on themselves. It happened 40 years ago so why can a simple thing like that not be done in this crisis? It is great to hear every organisation coming up with almost the same solutions but either the boards of management or the Department are not getting the message. If every group here encourages the schools they represent to look at the book rental scheme or uniforms, why is this still happening? This has nothing to do with the downturn. It should not have happened during the boom either.
Dr. Maria Griffin mentioned the bulk purchase of insurance and the grouping of schools together. Are all of the school organisations looking at that? It could be done for stationery, schoolbooks and electricity. The schools could negotiate a better discount. The logical proposal is for schools to bulk purchase books. If that happens, the publishers can be forced to give a greater discount.
The prices being charged for books in this day and age are a living disgrace. Textbooks, which are being produced and printed for €5, are being sold to parents for €40. It is not that expensive to print books in Ireland and many companies would love the contracts to produce these books for less. Something must be done to force these companies that are ripping off parents to lower prices. Fr. Connell is correct that there are e-books, but the majority of schools do not have access to them. There was a pilot in St. Louise's in Ballyfermot, however, and it was much easier. Every child who took part in the pilot scheme gained from it.
If people are considering bulk buying, they could do the same for schoolbags, which are also €40 for a bag that will hold the necessary books. I have two children in secondary school and one in primary school and I know this myself. It is an additional cost. I am lucky that I have an income and my wife is also working. People who are not working, however, cannot cover these expenses with the back to school grant when a school jumper costs €60 and a schoolbag €40.
The VAT proposal is a positive idea and should be pursued by the committee with the Minister for Finance. There should be a mechanism for schools to claim a rebate on water charges as well. There is an exemption and that was one of the rules, but there is nothing to prevent the State from granting a rebate. That alone would benefit everyone.
I do not think the costs of going back to school are rising at all but parents are finding it more difficult to meet the costs. The cost of textbooks and school equipment for kids peaked a few years ago. The number of textbooks has been reduced and it should be cut further because there is an over-reliance on textbooks. The point made in the CPSMA submission would cut the cost of going back to school by between 25% and 50%. I say that because I followed those rules myself as a school principal and cut the cost of going back to school by 50%. With proper rigour it would be possible to do that.
I would not hold my breath, good as the proposal is for a VAT reduction. I am old enough to remember the campaign for VAT on hurleys and it got nowhere. I agree with Fr. O'Connell but we also must be careful about procurement in order that we do not affect local businesses too much. Even when we are talking about a new framework for printing, it could exclude 90% of local suppliers. We must be careful. I preferred the approach outlined by Ms Flynn of adopting a whole-school approach.
I thank the patron bodies for their contributions, which were very practical and enjoyable. We are having this meeting in the context of a difficult budgetary situation that has occurred over recent years and that is likely to continue. By and large, while every group referred to that fact and to the reductions in funding, they all remained positive and tried to come up with solutions. The challenge for the patron bodies is to continue the work they are doing to come up with ideas. There was common ground and there were some differences, so it is important we share ideas. For us as legislators, particularly on the Government side, we must rise to the challenge issued by the groups to come up with solutions to the VAT issues and energy challenges outlined by Mr. Campbell, the timing of grants and local authority charges. Those are all challenges we will take on board.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
Is é an chéad rud faoi ghaelscoileanna agus faoin gcostas ná gur scoileanna nuabhunaithe iad go leor de na scoileanna atá faoin bhForas Pátrúnachta, agus tá go leor acu i seomraí réamhdhéanta. Ní bhaineann seo leis an bhForas Pátrúnachta amháin ach leis na pátrúin ar fad. I gcás scoileanna atá lonnaithe sna seomraí sin, tá costas teasa agus breosla i bhfad níos airde agus tá an t-ualach sin ag titim ar na scoileanna. Le bheith cothrom don Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna, tá sí ag iarraidh freastal air sin agus cóiríocht níos fearr a chur ar fáil, ach dá bhféadfadh an coiste brú a chur uirthi, b'fhiú é. Tá scoileanna fúinne os cionn 16 bliain sna seomraí réamhdhéanta agus is gá díriú orthu láithreach.
Go stairiúil, bhí easpa téacsleabhar Gaeilge ann ach na leabhair a bhí ann, bhí siad ar chomhchaighdeán leis na leabhair i mBéarla a bhí inúsáidte ní hamháin le múineadh na Gaeilge ach le múineadh na n-ábhar eile. Tá an-obair déanta le roinnt blianta anuas ag COGG, agus molaim go hard an cumann sin, ní hamháin ó thaobh téacsleabhar a fhorbairt agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do na comhlachtaí oideachais éagsúla, ach go háirithe maidir leis an "e-oideachas" faoinar labhair an tAth. O'Connell. Tá iTunes in úsáid aige agus ceacht.ie curtha chun cinn le gairid agus tá na háiseanna seo á bhforbairt agus inúsáidte. Ag an am céanna, bíonn na scoileanna faoi mhíbhuntáiste.
Yes. I suppose health and safety, vetting and other issues would have to be taken into consideration. Do our guests wish to make any specific comments on the cost of insurance? Would it be possible to tackle this matter under, for example, national procurement guidelines?
Ms Margaret Gorman:
An issue arises in the context of bulk buying. If a number of schools come together and decide to purchase their oil and insurance from certain suppliers, they run the risk of breaching EU law. I accept that this seems extraordinary but we are continually faced with the problem of ensuring that we comply with health and safety regulations, EU law, etc. Schools are obviously concerned about matters of this nature. We work very closely with the National Procurement Service, NPS, because it offers schools a way in which to bulk buy without being in breach of competition law. The CPSMA has been pushing the concept of working with the NPS in order that schools will not fall foul of the rules and regulations. Unfortunately, it is sometimes the case that difficulties can arise in respect of what might seem to be an obvious solution.
Schools are becoming VAT collectors. The CPSMA, in conjunction with the JMB, is currently running seminars throughout the country because schools are now returning VAT to the Revenue Commissioners. Perhaps an arrangement could be arrived at in this regard, particularly in the context of schools that are involved in any sort of building or alteration works.
Another issue that arises is ICT. Of course, e-books and e-learning are fantastic. However, school authorities continually point out that we should not forget about the ongoing costs involved in respect of ICT. For example, it costs several thousand euro to purchase an interactive whiteboard and if one is obliged to change the bulb on it, the cost of doing so is a further €300.
These are some of the issues which arise. I am of the view that it would certainly be worthwhile to examine the option of using the National Procurement Service when it comes to purchasing books from publishers.
Ms Colette Kavanagh:
It is beginning to become relevant. One of the publishers launched a new English reading scheme - which we have taken on - for which there is no physical textbook. Everything relating to this scheme is done via interactive whiteboards. The point Ms Gorman made is very relevant. The maintenance of computers and interactive whiteboards is giving rise to our biggest cost and we need to fund-raise in order to cover this. The savings made as a result of children not being obliged to have textbooks are being lost as a result of the need to meet maintenance costs.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
I echo what the previous speakers stated. All of our schools have interactive whiteboards and there is a cost associated with their upkeep. I wish to refer to a matter that has not yet been raised, namely, special schools. I do not represent special schools and I have no expertise in the area. However, I am aware that the costs involved in running these schools are three to four times as great as those relating to the running of ordinary mainstream schools. The heating in those schools must be switched on constantly and they have water needs which are far in excess of those of other schools. As already stated, I do not have any expertise in this area but I have received feedback from some of our patrons who are involved in special schools to the effect that the costs relating to running them are over and above those incurred by ordinary mainstream schools.
Ms Eileen Flynn:
In regard to the introduction of e-books in primary schools, there is a pedagogical issue of which cognisance must be taken. Children at junior level need to have 3D learning opportunities. They cannot learn about money from a whiteboard; they actually need to handle it. This means that it is not quite as simple as it sounds. They also need to handle books and turn their pages. There are children who come to junior infants now who believe that if they place two fingers on an image in a book, it will automatically become enlarged. I wish I had an iPhone 4S to give to each of them.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to Christmas presents, etc., for teachers. I am not representing the CPSMA when I, as a principal and a teacher of many years experience, say that I have never accepted a present from anybody. The experience of receiving a present is horrific. In order to have a present for their teachers, some children would actually steal something from their mothers' dressing tables. I could not agree more with the Deputy that the custom of giving presents should be done away with. However, the decision in that regard is one for schools to make. I am of the view that it is very odd that children are still giving presents to teachers.
If the committee has power to do anything with regard to schools being treated as businesses, perhaps it might consider the position with regard to standing charges. We want to be green and clean, so schools have switched to gas for their heating. However, one third of their bills are made up of the standing charge. In July and August, primary schools are closed but they must still pay the standing charge. We investigated this matter previously and tried to make representations to various legislators in respect of it. I understand there is a legal issue in this regard.
Mr. Michael Moriarty:
The IVEA represents the VECs. We have very good experience in respect of procurement and have saved up to 40% on printing and other costs. I take on board what was said in respect of SMEs, etc. We met representatives from the SMEs recently in order to discover how they might be incorporated into the framework.
In the context of e-books and e-learning, VAT is charged in respect of iPads, laptops, e-books, etc. This is a matter to which the committee could give immediate consideration. The fact that VAT is charged on these items is actually a disincentive in the context of expansion.
In the interests of trying to remain positive about the maintenance of ICT systems, this is a matter on which we can all work in a collaborative manner. The Education and Training Boards Bill 2012, which will facilitate the VECs' replacement with the new education and training boards, includes an expectation of collaboration between these boards. Such collaboration must happen at local level and there is evidence that this is already the case. For example, County Cavan VEC provides ICT support to a considerable number of primary schools. This can help reduce costs. The new education and training board for Cavan and Monaghan will be able to bring about significant improvements in respect of the cost base of primary schools within its catchment area. Working in a collaborative way is a matter to which we must, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin suggested, give consideration. In the current climate, this is the route we must take.
We have moved towards discussing the cost of running schools. I understand the progression in this regard but we are trying to focus on the costs parents incur when their children return to school. Many speakers have indicated that this is a local issue, particularly in the context of schools' policies on uniforms, etc. However, members would be encouraged if our guests took a leadership role in respect of this matter and sent out some guidelines to schools with regard to what might be considered appropriate for investigation at local level. I understand that our guests' hands are tied but their showing some leadership on this matter would have an impact at local level in the context of policies relating to school uniforms, the giving of presents to teachers, etc. Children giving presents to their teachers might be regarded as being no big deal or even frivolous but it has an impact on families at various times throughout the school year. If we state that this should be decided at local level, then we are not showing enough leadership. I am of the view that guests should take the lead and issue some guidelines. However, it is entirely up to them to decide what they wish to do.
I had not intended to intervene but I will avail of the opportunity to do so.
I had some correspondence from an individual in Castleisland, County Kerry. I am sure other members may have received correspondence on making school books affordable, in particular exam papers. Have others come across the proposals that the individual has put forward? I am sure Senator Moloney would be familiar with schoolbooks.ie. Should this be examined further? I am aware the Department of Education and Skills has reservations about the competition element of it, but this individual might have a good idea. Have members come across his proposals?
I had to leave the room, and I apologise if this question was covered during my absence. In the course of his presentation, Fr. O'Connell outlined that a voluntary secondary school inexplicably continues to receive €90 less per pupil each year than a comparable community and comprehensive school and €212 per pupil less than a vocational school. Will he elaborate on that point and comment on the dynamic behind it?
In the past couple of days there has been media comment on fee-paying schools. There are 55 fee-paying schools nationally, 26 of which are denominational and any change would result in increased schools fees. Would that put pressure on some of those schools to opt into the public system?
Are there any other members offering? As nobody is offering I will raise a number of issues. It was suggested to me that an upfront enrolment fee can be a deterrent for low-income families to apply for a place in such a school. Should there be a higher capitation fee for schools located in older school buildings? Obviously people attending schools with newer buildings will not agree, but it is harder to heat an older building.
Senator D'Arcy referred to the cost of workbooks and suggested it was more difficult for parents to meet these additional costs because of reducing incomes. I understand, but I did not get a chance to read it, that the Irish Examiner has a story on the higher than expected number of applications for the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, even though the number of eligible categories was reduced.
Will each group cover the issues that were raised when making their final contribution? Deputy Ó Ríordáin asked if the patron bodies could take on a leadership role and issue guidelines. Deputy McConalogue raised the issue of fee-paying schools. Deputy Griffin mentioned a company by name, but we do not endorse a particular company, but will somebody comment on the type of service it provided? During the summer, a company was in the news for the length of delays in servicing the orders for school books. I asked whether the capitation fee is sufficient for older buildings and if the upfront enrolment fee acts as a deterrent for low-income families going to particular schools.
I will call the groups in the order in which they made their contributions,
Ms Eileen Flynn:
The Chair has asked challenging questions. The question is whether capitation should be differentiated. That could and should be looked at. In an older building, one cannot selectively turn off the heat in one wing.
We are absolutely opposed to a fee on enrolment. There should be no question of paying a registration fee for enrolment. We appreciate the reason that some schools, even at primary level in some areas, have to do it because they are faced with multiple enrolments and they cannot determine how many children will go to an individual school. We would not be in favour of such a fee.
We were asked whether we could take a leadership role by way of issuing guidelines. I do not think there is an issue with that but I will ask my colleague, Ms Margaret Gorman, to comment.
Ms Margaret Gorman:
We are very aware that finance is an issue for schools. In our next newsletter we will deal with that issue. The question of a differentiated capitation grant brings into sharp focus the issue of the minor works grant, which we think could be going. We are still hopeful that some money might be found somewhere for these works, although it is said that it could be gone. Schools are making that point to us. We get a significant level of correspondence on minor works grants, particularly from older schools.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
I echo the remarks of Ms Flynn and Ms Gorman. We can also advise schools about the guidelines on school uniforms. The patrons have no issue with school uniforms, so it would be no problem for us.
It is important to highlight that many of our schools are older small schools. The loss of the minor works grant will affect them and will add to their running costs. As Ms Flynn said, one cannot turn off radiators in one part of the building. If one turns off the radiators it would cause an airlock. There is also the issue of insulation and heat conservation. One must comply with building regulations and for that reason, PVC windows may not be suitable. Individual boards of management must try to cope.
Ms Colette Kavanagh:
We referred earlier to the establishment of the 16 education and training boards to replace the 33 education committees. We would imagine that would create substantial savings for the Department. We hope those savings would be used, perhaps, to reinstate the minor works grant or to defray the cuts in the capitation.
I am principal of a DEIS school. Without the DEIS grant our school could not survive. The schools that are not eligible for the DEIS grant are struggling more than I would be struggling in a DEIS school. The parents who are not eligible for the back to school allowance or for free school transport, the so-called "coping classes" are struggling. I would like that they should be kept in mind.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
We have an ongoing conversation with schools on taking a leadership role, issuing guidelines on uniforms, teachers' presents and so on. We must consider that the management of these schools is being carried out and conducted by volunteers. The school system is based on the goodwill of the boards of management around the country, which is a substantial saving for Government. We are putting an onus on the boards of management to adhere to guidelines, procedures and EU competition law and so on. They all buy into the cost savings and reducing the costs on parents. They want to run the schools as best they can.
They need assistance. I accept there are several initiatives but a concerted effort on cost reduction support is required. I refer to implementation support at school level for the points made by Senator Jim D’Arcy. Currently, schools are engulfed with issues ranging from child protection to new curriculum implementation. Trying to reduce costs is another issue. Many issues arise in both rural and urban schools. Sometimes it is necessary to have someone to come into the school and say, for example, that if one takes out every second bulb it will save €1,000 or that one should go to the national procurement website.
School principals receive a multiplicity of correspondence daily by e-mail, letter and also from speaking to parents. It is not easy to absorb all of the information and to co-ordinate it. That must also be taken into consideration in what we are trying to do. If we are to reduce costs we must provide assistance to school boards on how to do it. Reference was made to centralised bulk buying and the cost savings that would ensue. We should bear in mind that those on school boards are volunteers. Board members, teachers and principals bring all the goodwill in the world to their approach but consideration must be given to providing assistance to them.
Mr. David Campbell:
It is a valid point about the need for assistance to maintain old buildings. However, as the principal of a brand new school, I would be remiss if I did not point out the difficulties of building up educational resources and supplies when one starts with nothing.
I wish to add to what was said about electricity charges. This year one quarter of my capitation grant to the school will go on heating and lighting. That is a significant proportion of the funding. I do not see why standing charges could not be abolished. At home I have a night meter and a day meter. I do not see why schools could not be charged night meter rates. There are many ways to make a big difference. I urge the committee to ask the energy companies to come before it to see what they could do for schools which would not affect the Exchequer.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
It is important that we keep Mr. Ó hEaghra’s point about volunteers in mind. They are representative of local communities and they are dealing with a complexity of issues. It is important that we recognise that. Boards of management are aware of local issues that affect parents. Great work is done by them. There is a danger at meetings such as this one that we can sometimes hone in on the negatives. Much positive work is being done in terms of the mass of 30,000 volunteers who support the education system at first and second levels. We must congratulate them and also encourage them to continue to look at how to reduce costs.
At the core of our submission is the fact that central government has a role to play. Schools have no source of funding other than central government or the local community, in particular, parents. It is a huge dilemma and a struggle for local management to reconcile.
I will deal with a couple of issues that were raised by various members of the committee. On the enrolment fee and voluntary contributions, we are clear and we send regular guidelines to schools reminding them that if they are in the free education scheme they cannot charge a compulsory fee of any type. I have a copy of the most recent correspondence we sent to schools four weeks ago. That point has been reiterated time and again. At the same time we remind parents that we need the support at local level to keep the school open. It is literally down to that nowadays.
Fee-paying schools have about 7% of the second level school population. The State contributes the salaries of teachers. No matter where those 26,000 children are, the State will be paying the teachers’ salaries. If parents can no longer afford to continue to send their children to such schools and they have to move into the free education scheme, the State will be paying much more. They will still be paying the teachers’ salaries but they will be paying capitation and other grants to keep the schools running. That must be remembered and kept in focus.
Everyone recognises that the national procurement service is a good idea but there are difficulties. I went to a meeting in March 2011 at which we spoke about the provision of electricity. I gather a competition was to be run. The primary schools are still involved in the same situation. I do not know whether electricity is measured in watts or ohms but not one competition has run yet. I am told it will be next March – two years on - before the aspiration can be fulfilled. Big questions arise in that regard.
We were asked about local suppliers. We are conscious about office supplies and stationery in particular. If three or four schools in a town switch to the national procurement framework then a local business will be gone overnight. We must get the balance right. We need to save money. We will save money, but we must recognise the balance between saving money and maintaining local businesses.
Reference was made by a few members to school transport. There is a danger, in particular with the new school transport arrangements that have been introduced since 1 January 2012, that parental choice will be restricted. We are getting more and more representations by the week from schools representing parents who have to contribute substantially higher sums of money to pay for school transport to a school of their choice.
As Mr. Moriarty said, we welcome the opportunity presented by shared services but it would be remiss of me not to mention that when setting up the education and training boards, the other education sectors should have a statutory right to representation on them. This would help to ensure the integration of all of the educational services within an area and allow shared services to operate in an integrated way because representation would exist at board level.
We will conclude as we have had a long meeting. I thank each of the groups for taking the time – some had to take time off from schools – to make presentations to the committee. The presentations were constructive and contained many good suggestions. We have had a productive meeting. We will send a transcript of the meeting to those who attended and we will try to itemise the suggestions that were made and the issues that were raised. We will follow them up with the Minister. I hope the committee will come up with further policy development in the area. The engagement with the witnesses was positive. I thank members also in that regard.
I remind members that we are meeting next Tuesday in the Department of Social Protection. We will have an additional meeting on Thursday of next week with the nominated chair for the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland.