Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Managing Back to School Costs: Discussion
I welcome four organisations that will make presentations to the committee on the matter of managing back to school costs. I apologise to the guests that we are somewhat delayed but there were important matters of correspondence and EU scrutiny proposals to address at the beginning of the meeting. We have with us Barnardos, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the National Parents Council Primary and the National Parents Council Post-Primary.
I draw attention to the fact that 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 they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. We will publish their opening statements on our website after today's meeting. Members are similarly reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to which I have just referred.
I will take speakers in the order in which I listed the groups and invite Mr. Fergus Finlay to make his opening remarks on behalf of Barnardos.
Mr. Fergus Finlay:
I thank the Chair. I will not take very much time. We made a written submission to the committee and are very grateful for the opportunity to address the committee on a subject that has preoccupied us for a number of years. During that time we have been measuring the costs of going back to school and have published our survey year after year. Every year we say the same thing - this is a very frightening cost. In recent years it has been very clear to us from our direct experience that parents are going into unmanageable levels of debt over what ought to be a constitutional right for their children. Our most recent survey indicated that it costs in the region of €355 to start a child in senior infants; €390 for a child in fourth class and €770 for children going into first year of secondary school. That is the cost of books, uniforms and some absolute basics. It is not the cost of designer labels and all the other things parents are under pressure to provide.
Earlier this year when the budget was published, we said, as I believe all of us would agree, we thought it was shameful that the support available had been cut as drastically as it has been, namely, cut by a third in one budget for both primary and secondary school students, while it has effectively been halved for primary school students in the most recent budgets. Coming here today, we would love to ask for more money to be put into supporting families with these massive costs. We know that is not going to happen. What we would like is for this committee to do what can be done without increasing costs in order to make some things more affordable than they are at present.
In our view, there is a fundamental deficit of leadership in this area. One of the committee members said to me earlier that the problem with the education system in Ireland is that we fund the system but do not control it. Perhaps he did not see it as a problem but I do. There are some things that need to be controlled. For example, a school book rental scheme should be mandatory. If money is given to school principals they must be under absolute injunction and direction that the school book grant cannot be used for any other purpose. The voluntary code that currently exists among school book publishers should be made mandatory. There should be much stronger leadership than there is to direct boards of management to review their uniform policies. In Northern Ireland, for example, very detailed guidance is sent to every single school. Although I understand this is not mandatory it is far more persuasive than anything that goes out from the system here. There must be public policy in these areas. With a little bit of imagination and a little bit of, for want of a better word, lateral thinking, some of the heavier burdens can be removed from parents. Those things are simple to do and do not cost any money.
We know of schools where parents are leading by designing and running the school book rental scheme and where principals support them they are making real progress. In my view the policy should be that parents should be encouraged and allowed to lead and principals should be encouraged and, if necessary, obliged to support this work. Concerning school books and uniforms it is absolutely possible to make the kind of changes that would save families a lot of money. I would love to see and would argue for more financial support but I know it is a waste of everybody's breath to do that in the current climate.
I urge the committee to draw attention to, what I regard as, the inequitable income thresholds that discriminate against single-parent families. The children of single-parent families are already at greater risk of poverty and educational disadvantage without that discrimination. I urge the committee to address that.
When publishing its findings, I ask the committee to outlaw forever workbooks, which are an invention of the devil in my view. They are designed for the sole purpose of making money. They have no educational value whatsoever and cost an arm and a leg that does not need to be spent.
Ms Audrey Deane:
We will closely echo what Mr. Finlay has said because we work very closely with Barnardos and the National Parents Council - both primary and post-primary. I will start with some terribly stark statistics. It will come as no surprise to anyone in this room to discover that a quarter of all children in the country come from a household that does not have a job. Half of families rely either on a social welfare payment or low-paid work with consequences for children growing up with that degree of deprivation, exclusion and needs - as opposed to wants. Unfortunately we have the old reliable statistic of one in ten children living in severe poverty, which is basic deprivation. That is tough on the children and when they go to school it becomes compounded.
I am pleased to appear before this joint committee because as we said to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, since 2009 some €450 million has been taken out of child income-support payments and we in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul through our 10,500 members are very concerned. We witness on a daily basis what that does to a family with the erosion of hope, the degree of insecurity, stress, anxiety, hardship and the constant "No". We are talking about little ongoing costs of participation in school. For us this is not just a back-to-school issue, this is an all-year-round issue, involving things like the cheque for the swimming or the football boots. While participation on the GAA field can be the cheapest of all hobbies to get them out and about, a child cannot get near it without the kit, mouth-guard etc. - a child might end up looking like the Michelin man at the end of it all in order to get out there and play and be like everybody else. This applies to curricular activities. Swimming is on the national primary curriculum, but must be paid for. Children whose parents cannot pay end up stuck in another class while their mates go off and have a bit of craic on those days.
We are talking about exclusion and a deeply divisive commoditised education system in this country. I am sure members have read the survey from two days ago, which informed us - we did not need to hear it, but it is good to have evidence - that those from private schools do better because their parents can afford to buy commoditised privilege of educational resources.
Members may read our submissions which are all very similar and will drive home the same message that for many parents and households the cumulative reductions in social welfare supports and schemes and the continued cost of education are just too much for people to bear. I will not read out my submission which contains nice colourful pie charts indicating what our members shell out to people for schoolbooks and uniforms. This is keeping families afloat and we are very concerned about it. Our organisations have been at the forefront of trying to create solutions to this problem. We are looking to our elected Members to find ways of doing the job better - doing the right job the right way. As Mr. Finlay has said, we want parents to be partners. I have many copies in my bag if members want them. I would be quite happy to distribute them.
Ms Audrey Deane:
We want parents to be partners in education. We agree with Mr. Finlay of Barnardos and are quite appalled at the level of autonomy schools have. Up to €60 million of taxpayers' money goes towards schoolbooks to be dealt with in any discretionary way that a principal may see fit. There is good practice and bad practice. In some cases children are parading their poverty and in others there are very innovative, comfortable, confidential, discreet ways of doing things. There is a spectrum of ways of doing things, but it should not be like this. This is a small country with a limited number of schools. Let us just get on with this and find some solutions to this problem. As far as we are concerned, parents need to be a partner and do not need to continue to be at the receiving end of notes in schoolbags stating it will cost €450 for this iPad, €600 for this, €200 for that or whatever. This is not the way to have an adult partnership relationship when it comes to providing education for our cherished children.
All our organisations proposed solutions to the Minister on the issue of schoolbooks. We accept and we are party to the implementation of the guidelines, but we do not believe they go far enough. School principals cannot continue to have autonomy over whether to establish a schoolbook rental scheme because too much money is at stake. We are quite unhappy at the continuing frequency of additions and changes. We accept the publishers were forced into a new protocol but we know they continue to do deals with schools. Prior to the introduction of the protocol they had already different discounts for different schools. We do not believe that represents the way forward.
The schoolbook market is worth €60 million and we are not trying to reduce jobs or be anti-growth. However, we believe we need ministerial leadership to show there is a way that will be parent focused and not profit focused or publisher focused. We need to see some real solutions there and we want to be part of that. Until very recently there was a hands-off approach on the part of the Department of Education and Skills and it is not enough to throw our hands collectively in the air, ask what we can do and say that schools can decide what they want to do. That is not a viable option.
We are also very concerned that in the parent body there is a low awareness that taxpayers' money is going into schoolbooks. To date they have not had much understanding that they really should be asking school principals why they do not have a schoolbook solution. We understand that there are - particularly from our Labour Party colleagues - some ideas around this. We will stand beside them and work with them
Uniforms represent another large expenditure which does not need to be the case. It is good that all of our organisations got together with all the other leader organisations in education - some 13 organisations in all. We put our heads together and came up with a very simple two-page document to request school boards of management to review the school policy. This is solution focused and represents partnership working in action. I was lucky enough to meet the Minister for Education and Skills on his way up the stairs so he has a copy in his briefcase as we speak. This is the way to work in future - find solutions, work collaboratively and get to the outcome we want, which is less expense for parents. It is over to the members of the committee and we look forward to working with them in the future on these most important issues.
Ms Áine Lynch:
In our preparation for this submission we surveyed parents to establish the issues they had. In a three-week period from 22 February and 15 March we had 900 responses from parents on the issues. We focused the questions on the areas on which the committee has asked us for feedback. Some 60% of parents who responded said their schools had a schoolbook rental scheme available for all parents. Of those 60%, some 90% said they were utilising it. Where the schoolbook rental scheme exists in schools, parents see it as a major benefit. Some 40% said they did not have a schoolbook rental scheme available for all parents. As Mr. Finlay mentioned, workbooks was highlighted as a major issue.
It was the issue that many parents raised in the additional comments section. They referred to the cost of workbooks, the fact that they can only be used once and the under usage of them after they had been purchased. Often they are only half-filled at the end of the year. They were not even being fully utilised after purchase. I am not sure they are the Devil's invention but we would prefer that workbooks be taken out of the system.
We do not specifically ask for book rental schemes to be put on a mandatory basis because we believe every school should develop a strategy on making school books affordable for families. As the ways in which schools manage such strategies differ, making rental schemes mandatory may interfere with effective systems that are already in operation.
Approximately 90% of respondents reported that their schools operate school uniform policies, which indicates that school uniforms are issues for most parents. Of these 90% of parents, 64% had to purchase uniforms from specialist shops. We were disappointed by that in light of the amount of publicity we produce every year in our efforts to divert schools away from such policies. A number of parents noted that, in addition to the cost of school uniforms, they are also required to pay for no school uniform days, which they see as a contradiction in terms. In line with the document that the organisations jointly produced, we believe that schools should consult parents on the development of workable uniform policies and that such consultation should address all demographics in the school so that all parents' voices are heard.
Voluntary contributions are a further significant element of the cost of going back to school. Parents generally believe there is no voluntary aspect to voluntary contributions and if they do not pay them they sometimes receive letters written in red which are handed to their children. There is considerable pressure to pay these voluntary contributions. Some 65% of parents reported that they were not requested anonymously and 40% of those who were asked to pay contributions reported either that they found them difficult to pay or that they could not afford them. In respect of the 35% of parents who were not asked for a voluntary contribution, it would be interesting to find out what is happening in those schools. In regard to recommendations on voluntary contributions, we think a statement should be issued to the effect that they should not be requested. They are sometimes linked to enrolment in that parents are asked for a voluntary contribution as part of enrolling their children. Often they are told the money will be used for their first year's voluntary contribution, thereby setting the scene for it to become involuntary. Voluntary contributions should be banned and funding issues should be dealt with in the school community.
This gets to the heart of our views on back-to-school costs and the general cost of schooling. Parents are often seen as either funding the education system or expected to finance their children's ability to go to school. Parents' associations are used as fund-raising committees or else parents are asked to pay voluntary contributions or for the cost of books. The relationship is being placed within a financial framework and we believe it should be refocused on an educational framework. That cannot happen while all of these discussions are taking place, however. Research shows that when parents are engaged in learning, the children will do better. However, if communication between home and school starts with financial demands it is difficult for a struggling family to engage with the school around a child's learning. This affects not only families' abilities to carry financial burdens but also their ability to engage with their children's learning in school.
Parents were also given an opportunity to raise other issues. One issue was the fact that schools seek to raise money to cover other costs throughout the school year. A parent reported paying €61 for swimming lessons, €33 for school tours, €5 for a field trip in one month alone and was also expected to purchase tickets at Christmas for a draw, pay €10 admission to the school concert, buy Christmas cards at a cost of €8 per child and calendars at €6 each. There were two no-school uniform days at Hallowe'en, when parents were under pressure to purchase costumes, and on St. Patrick's Day, when parents had to buy something green. That is one of many responses we received on that subject. The other issue raised was the funding of curriculum areas within the school day. The pressure in this regard is more severe because the activities concerned take place during the school day. One parent reported that extra lessons, such as drama and swimming, cost approximately €150 per child per year and that children could not opt out because they were provided during school hours. These costs are piling up for parents throughout the year but they are not always revealed in our surveys because they are not loaded onto the beginning of the year.
Mr. Don Myers:
On behalf of the National Parents' Council Post Primary, I welcome this opportunity to address the committee. The National Parents' Council Post Primary is a voluntary organisation with 20 directors, who give of their time freely, and one full-time staff member. While I may be at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to other witnesses, I represent an organisation whose members are at the forefront as parents. The major issues we deal with are similar to those mentioned by other speakers.
The first issue is the cost of uniforms. We have been involved in a campaign aimed at reducing the cost of uniforms because, while we appreciate that uniforms distinguish schools and have to be worn, we need to consider more generic and less costly alternatives. We have heard crazy figures, such as skirts costing up to €90. That day is long gone. This issue needs to be driven from the top down. As a parent body we are powerless unless we have support from the top.
The cost of schools books has long been a major issue. We began to campaign on it in 2011 with our partners and managed to get publishers to introduce a code of conduct. However, we feel the code is very porous and as parents we are simply dictated to and required to take what we are offered. If a school requires books costing €200 parents must buy them if they want their children to be taught there. I am not being disrespectful to teachers when I say teachers pick the books and parents pay for them. In what other part of Irish society is that the practice? I respect teachers as educators, however.
A relatively new publisher claims to have saved parents €15 million in the last three years and estimates that it will save them a further €100 million over the next seven years. It must be applauded for that because it is good to see an Irish company using Irish resources.
We are experiencing hard times and it is good to see what can be achieved. We are also making strides in respect of e-books. However, we are being hampered by the 23% VAT rate. That is a matter to which consideration must be given. As parents, we can all voice our opinions but we do not have the power to get anything done. That is why we will be asking members to put pressure on the powers that be to see that this issue is addressed.
I examined the costs relating to transition year. We are of the view that transition year is important. The mission of transition year is "To promote the personal, social, educational and vocational development of pupils and to prepare them for their role as autonomous, participative, and responsible members of society." We are all aware, however, that with the cut in capitation grants and resources and the imposition of the moratorium, schools are being squeezed and are finding it difficult to make transition year feasible. Those schools which can offer transition year will, therefore, be those which can carry the cost. Increasing numbers of schools are leaning on parents. The latter are being asked to support everything. Reference was made earlier to non-uniform days. I discussed a particular matter with a principal recently and he asked me not to mention another non-uniform day. He stated that if there were any further such days, there would be no need for the pupils to wear their uniforms. The message is clear, namely, funding for initiatives such as transition year is a major imposition, and responsibility for shouldering the cost is continually being placed on parents.
We were all aware that something had to be done in respect of school transport, particularly from the point of view of cost in order to make it efficient. As a result, a value for money review was carried out in respect of school transport. We understand the need to obtain value for money but is it necessary to separate families? It is wrong that one family member can obtain transport to his or her school but that his or her sibling might not be able to attend the same school. Families are being split up at school level. The position in this regard should be reconsidered in order to discover how best this matter might be targeted. The maximum fee charged in respect of school transport is €650. That is nothing when one has it but it is a great deal when one does not. There are families who, unfortunately, fall just outside the qualifying criteria. In the context of issues of this nature, individual circumstances should be taken into account.
I should have referred earlier to the clothing and footwear allowance. This has been reduced significantly in the past couple of budgets. Again, there are families who are missing out on this allowance because they do not meet the criteria and are over the threshold involved. Let us face it, there are sole traders who are in business, who are struggling and who are not entitled to social welfare payments. They are as badly off as some of those who are in receipt of social welfare. Everything must be taken on its merits and on an open basis.
As parents, we want our children to receive the best education possible. We want them to live happy and productive educational lives. At present, however, the position for parents is not good and this is going to reflect back on our children. I ask that anything which can be done for schools or parents, should be done. We all understand that we are living in difficult economic times. However, with a little cohesive effort from everyone we can get things moving. Parents need to be involved at a higher level. As a parent, I am of the view that this is necessary. I ask the committee to bear in mind that, as parents, we need help.
I join the Chairman in welcoming our guests and I thank them for their presentations. I also thank them for offering suggestions as to how the Government might take some action to assist in alleviating the problem that exists. There is an onus on the committee to take this matter up with the Minister directly and to ask that the Department take more decisive action to adopt some of the practical proposals put forward by our guests. What they are seeking has been sought in the past but, unfortunately, action has never been taken.
The presentations contained a number of common themes. The issue of schoolbooks was particularly prominent and was referred to by all our guests, especially in the context of cost. Two or three suggestions were put forward in the context of the banning of workbooks, a requirement for compulsory book rental schemes in all schools and more input on the part of parents. Reference was also made to the 23% rate of VAT which applies to e-books - this are being used on an increasing basis - but which does not apply in respect of printed versions. When commenting on the survey carried out by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Ms Deane stated that 64% of school uniforms must be purchased at specialist stores. That figure is remarkably high and it is not acceptable. This is a matter which the committee needs to pursue.
The key difficulty which arises relates to the fact that one quarter of students come from homes were no one is in employment and that half have parents who are either on low incomes or in receipt of social welfare payments. The main issue is that we have been reducing the supports provided to the families who are experiencing the greatest degree of financial pressure at present while increasing the demands on them at school level. Although we are focusing at this meeting on the reduced level of supports available, we must also consider the reason schools are placing more demands on parents. A study was carried by Amárach Research on behalf of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, CPSMA, in respect of the funding crisis being experienced by schools. It emerged that as this crisis becomes more pronounced at school level, the onus is increasingly being placed on parents.
The back to education allowance has been cut significantly in the past two years, from €200 to €100 at primary level and from €305 to €200 at secondary level. This has placed real pressure on families who cannot find the money from elsewhere. In addition, the summer works scheme which was used by schools to carry out certain refurbishment projects has been discontinued. Last autumn, the minor works grant was also discontinued. Some schools managed to absorb this particular cut in funding, which was worth a minimum of €5,000 to each school. The grant in question would have fallen due for payment in the latter half of this year and a real funding crisis is going to emerge at primary level, in particular. As stated, the grant was worth €5,000 to each school. In a school with 50 students, families are going to be obliged to find an additional €100 each in order to make up the shortfall. In a school with 100 students, the shortfall per head will be €50. Who is going to pay this money? Again, the onus will be placed on families. That which I describe does not often garner the same type of prominence and coverage as direct cuts to the supports provided to families. There have been calls for voluntary contributions, etc., to be banned. However, they reason such contributions are requested is because the funding for schools is continually being squeezed. One way or another, the responsibility in this regard is always placed back on the shoulders of parents.
There is a need to ask the Department to reconsider the position regarding the supports it provides to schools and in respect of the impact cuts to funding are going to have on parents.
The suggestions made by the delegations today are worthwhile and we need to push them with the Department and the Minister.
I will not repeat much of what Deputy McConalogue has said because while there is a common theme among those working with parents and those working in this area, such as Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, there is also a common theme on this side in terms of recognising that there is a need to address it. On the one hand we have a Minister, Department and Government which are cutting resources, including the back-to-school allowances and capitation grants, while on the other hand the Government is washing its hands of some of the possible solutions to try to offset the costs of schools for parents, and that is unacceptable.
Reference was made to the cost of school books. I have spoken to several principals and patron bodies about this issue. I believe patron bodies have a responsibility in all of this as well. Often the patron body gets lost in the debate on back-to-school costs and it is left to the Department and the school board of management, but the patron bodies have a major responsibility to take the lead on this issue and I do not believe they are doing so. We need to say that much loud and clear.
Schools that do not have book rental schemes maintain that they would prefer to have such schemes but that the problem is the significant start-up costs involved. Do the delegations have any comment on that or any experience of it? I imagine the National Parents Council Primary is dealing with schools which may not have official book rental schemes in place but may have alternative arrangements, or perhaps its representatives have spoken to parents from schools that do not have these schemes in place. Will the delegation outline the reasons behind this? One point we frequently hear is that a significant start-up cost is involved. Once a scheme is up and running, those involved can manage it, but the difficulty is to get a scheme up and running. Do the delegations have any solutions to or opinions on that?
Reference was made to voluntary contributions. Let us face it: they are not really voluntary contributions. We all get the letters. I have children in primary, post-primary and higher education. We get letters from my daughter's post-primary school. After reading them one is under the impression that if one did not pay, she would not get a place next year. There are letters seeking to process the child's enrolment for the next academic year and there a request for a voluntary fee of €120 needed by 1 May. It is not needed by the following September but now. This must be addressed. Ms Lynch put the case rather well about the ongoing costs, which are astronomical. These are the costs associated with drama, swimming and no-uniform days. Every week there is something costing either €10, €15 or €20, especially in post-primary education. In primary education these costs may not arise on a weekly or monthly basis, but in secondary schools there are continuing requests for money, whether for Christmas tickets or Easter draws or whatever, and parents are struggling to budget for these costs. Many parents will know that there are uniforms to be got before going back to school and they will try to budget as best they can. However, once the child starts back in school, the ongoing costs are sometimes not budgeted for. They can come out of the blue and these costs are causing parents to struggle.
One submission - I cannot recall which - reported on how parents come up with the money to fund back-to-school costs. The figure for those going to moneylenders was given as 1%. This seems a remarkably low figure. From my experience of dealing with people in my constituency offices and from speaking to parents, it seems a decidedly low figure and I am unsure how accurate it is. My own experience is that the number of parents who go to moneylenders to make up the shortfall involved in sending their children back to school is considerably higher than 1%. That is a frightening development, the likes of which we are seeing more of now, especially cases in which parents are being forced into the hands of illegal moneylenders with all the attendant dangers. I question that particular statistic in the report.
Mr. Finlay put it well when he said there is a fundamental deficit in leadership in this area. There is no doubt there is a fundamental deficit in leadership but it cannot be put solely at the foot of the Minister. All of us, as legislators, must take responsibility for that. I believe there is a need to make the voluntary code of practice mandatory. More can be done on the issue of uniforms but the patron bodies must buy into that process as well and more pressure must be put on them.
I am unsure whether making the school book rental scheme mandatory would work now because of the initial start-up costs. I call on the delegations to respond to that question. I would be keen to hear the ideas of the delegations. Is the initial upfront start-up cost a genuine reason for schools not having a school book rental scheme?
Ms Audrey Deane:
There are many innovative ways to do it. It takes a little collective problem solving. The issues are there to be solved. Let us suppose there are six first year classes and 25 biology books for each class. If one bought all of them, even at a discount rate, it would take a good deal of money, but one need not do it like that. There is scope for leveraging parental involvement. At the moment there is a huge polarity in autonomy. People need to be brought into the equation. Perhaps my colleagues may wish to comment on this.
I wish to make one final point on school uniforms. When we discuss school uniforms, everyone presumes we are referring to a jumper and pants or a skirt and a top, but it goes beyond that. There are uniforms, school tracksuits and school jackets. It is no longer a geansaí and trousers or a pinafore. Students of 12 or 13 years of age who are growing continually do not even get the second year out of a track suit. They may only be worn once a week in schools, but parents may have spent €90 on them only to be worn 40 times during the year. It is criminal.
I thank the guests for being here. I have been working on this report for some time and we have heard presentations from the patron bodies, which were interesting as well. Submissions have been received from various bodies and they have been well received.
There are two issues. The first is the costs themselves but the second is the capacity of a parent to pay them. We need to consider both issues. Naturally, we need to consider the capacity of the parent to pay, but fundamentally we should ask why these costs are there in the first place.
We have always had the problem of the cost of sending a child to school being unnecessarily high. When we had money, we did not focus on this issue properly. During the boom times we made other political priorities. There is a cultural question at issue. As Mr. Finlay rightly noted, we should go back to the Constitution and the value of having a free education. We have lost the sense of that ideal. Perhaps we need to have a discussion among ourselves as a society about that cultural shift. The idea of holding a fund-raiser for a Garda station sounds ridiculous but we have no difficulty holding a fund-raiser for a school or a hospital. People in Scandinavian countries would find that rather bizarre.
Part of the problem is the nature of competition between schools. The value system that underpins our education system is one of choice, and that is fair enough. However, it leads to a level of competition between schools. My school must offer something the neighbouring school does not have, because I need a certain enrolment in my school to keep my staff complement as it is. I would not be keen to lose numbers to the neighbouring school and, therefore, I may prioritise a nicer jumper and the ability to offer X, Y and Z.
I do not understand why we stand over a system that puts pressures on parents to fund outings such as ski trips. When did the idea of a ski trip become an integral part of the educational journey that a person needs to travel during secondary school? These questions have to be asked but there are more fundamental things we need to discuss. I was quite taken by what Ms Lynch said about the fundamental relationship between the parent and the school being undermined, because it is increasingly becoming a financial relationship rather than one based on education and learning.
That is an incredibly powerful statement.
We have a problem of authority. As Mr. Finlay said, we do not have a State education system, rather we have a State funded education system. All the patron bodies came before the committee and were asked what they believed was their responsibility in terms of book and uniform policies. Each and every one said it was a localised issue and each independent board of management made an independent decision on uniform policy, and they had no overarching responsibility for it. That has to be challenged. One patron body, Educate Together, said its philosophy was to have no uniform and was able to ensure all its schools have that policy. I do not know whether that is a cost for parents, but if it can have a policy for its schools, I do not see why other patron bodies cannot do the same.
We have to be more inventive with school books. I agree with Ms Deane that this does not need to be something that happens next September. We could have a vision of something happening over ten years and gradually come to a situation where a book rental scheme is introduced in every school in the country. We could deal with core textbooks first and then move on to other areas of the curriculum. There has to be buy-in from all the different agencies involved in education.
I ask the delegates to give me a sense of the responsibility patron bodies have for individual boards of management and principals who play ball. It was suggested there are schools where principals and parents work together quite strongly to find solutions while others are not playing ball and are happy to communicate the exclusive nature of a school in a community, that the school is difficult to get into and has high standards, and therefore that there are costs to getting into such a school, such as a payment of €70 to enrol a child, which I have heard from parents, or the requirement to pay a voluntary contribution.
There may be a role for local authorities in terms of what the local library service can do about books. The policy regarding uniforms needs to be challenged. I ask the National Parents Council Post-Primary to refer to the digital revolution that is occurring at second level. If a principal decides every first year pupil has to have an iPad, what strain does that place on the parents with whom it deals? Is enough direction coming from the Department on what is happening independently of any strategy it has implemented? Does it ask for the educational evidence that an iPad is needed? I am led to believe that if one reads something in print, it stays with one longer than if one reads it on screen. These things are happening without any management, policy-wise, from the Department. How can we work with schools to ensure it is not just fashionable for every secondary school student to have an iPad?
Those are my basic thoughts. I look forward to trying to put as much of what the delegations said into the report as possible, and to having some fundamental demands in it which will achieve something. I do not want the report simply to say the situation is terrible and has to change without having a strategy for how it can be changed. We should not expect change to occur in September but rather over a period of time. Everybody, including the Department, patron bodies and the boards of management of primary and secondary schools, needs to take their responsibilities seriously.
I thank the delegates for coming before the committee and for their presentations. I worked in retail for 24 years before I was elected to the Dáil. I had a shoe shop. I have seen all perspectives on uniforms and school shoes. It is a closed shop when it comes to school uniforms and shoes. One hears from people in the retail trade that they have a school on their books which they facilitate with school uniforms and they have the whole market to themselves. On a few occasions I tried to get some information on clothing to determine whether I could mix clothes and shoes, but found I could not enter the market because it is a closed shop. The school supports a shop and they work in tandem.
In Northern Ireland one can purchase a crest or badge and multinationals co-ordinate with schools. Uniforms are chosen which everyone, including multinationals and local shops, can get. Whoever has the best prices gets the business. Multinationals do not carry huge stock, and therefore individual shops also get trade. In the Republic, there are different colours, shapes and makes, and it is a closed shop. People in the trade are making vast sums of money. One trader told me he earns enough in the six to eight weeks of back-to-school trade to keep him going for the whole year.
As a Deputy O'Brien said, uniforms no longer comprise trousers and a geansaí, rather there are sports elements. People with three or four children could spend a couple of thousand euro in a shop. That could be multiplied many times. I wish the best of luck to such shops but we need open trading in this sector.
One issue raised by Mr. Myers was the 23% VAT rate. There was a Revenue crackdown on the shoe industry. Children's shoes are zero-rated and adult shoes have a VAT rate of 23%. Most shoes come in carton lots of 12 and 14 because they are made in the Far East. Deck shoes with white soles have become very popular - they are called "Dubes" - and cost €100 a pair. Such shoes start at size 36 and go up to size 42. A 36 is a size 3. Most shop owners thought that shoes up to size 5.5 were zero-rated, but the Revenue Commissioners said once a range goes from 36 to 48, all sizes are ratable at 23%. Children's feet grow, and eight, nine or ten year olds wear size 7, 8, 9 or 10 shoes, which are all rated at 23%.
If we do anything as a result of today's meeting, we should examine whether the Government can do anything about having an exemption from the 23% for school-going children. It would be a huge saving. If one has to buy runners, shoes and football boots for four or five children, the extra 23% VAT is significant. Mr. Myers brought memories of the VAT rate flooding back. Revenue did audits and then left shoe shops because it was worried about the negative publicity it would get. However, we were told that once shoes came in cartons with sizes from 36 to 42, we had to charge 21%, and then 23% when the rate increased. It is a major issue for people buying shoes for children going back to school.
In one school with which I am dealing, if one does not pay the voluntary contribution, one does not get a key for a locker. Children who see others without keys know they have not paid, which is an horrendous situation.
There are a lot of sole traders and self-employed people. I was self-employed and came before this committee, as other members can confirm, to push for an effort to look after the self-employed. The comments on the grant system for back-to-school requirements are correct. Many sole traders are not surviving and we need to consider helping them in terms of back-to-school grants. The laws on social protection have been loosened a little and sole traders are receiving payments, but it is still an issue.
Going back to school uniforms, many of the shops which have a monopoly on their sale are supplying acrylic and synthetic garments. The profits on these items are huge. It boils down to the decisions made by boards of management and principals. When one becomes a member of a board of management, whether one is voted in or appointed by a local authority, there is no education given on how the boards actually function. Instead, members are expected to go with the flow, which often means falling in line with what the principal says. This system is not good enough and must be changed. I raised this issue with the departmental delegates at a meeting of the committee some weeks ago. They assured us that money has been set aside this year to publish information booklets for school board members.
I am sure the Chairman will allow me to finish this very important point. The message is not getting through. Parents are going in one direction, principals in another and boards of management are acting in accordance with the status quo. It is not good enough.
Ms Áine Lynch:
Thank you, Chairman. Several members referred to the status of book rental schemes and how that cost can be allayed. My personal view is that if the school book publishers all closed down tomorrow and no new primary school books were published, I am not sure the education system would change at all. This is because, in the first instance, the curriculum was written to facilitate a lesser degree of reliance on school books. The bottom line, however, is that there are already enough books in the system. When one considers the number of children who finish primary school every year, the question arises as to where their books are going. Schools must have some means of retaining those books within the system.
The fundamental difficulty in this regard is the regularity with which the assigned reading list changes for individual classes. I am referring here not only to what the book publishers are doing but also the tendency of some teachers to change the reading list for their class, sometimes year on year. That has to stop if schools are to be in a position to offer a workable book rental system. Any such scheme requires consistency in the books that are used each year. As I said, there are probably enough books in the primary system to implement any model of school book rental scheme. I am not even sure why there is rental element to it; if the books are there in the schools, they can be given to children. Year on year, however, parents are purchasing yet more books and one is left wondering where this huge pile of books is accumulating. It does not seem to add up.
It does not take too much thought or innovation to work out how to keep the books we already have and recycle them within the system. Any such scheme should not be too difficult to initiate because of the massive numbers of books already in circulation. Coming from the English system, I am constantly amazed at this phenomenon of new books being purchased every year. We often hear about a revised edition of a particular textbook replacing the older version on the assigned book list. Again, coming from the English system, it was my experience that in such cases the teacher would instruct pupils with the older edition to open on page 42 and those with the newer version to turn to page 44. That was all the variation in teaching that was required to accommodate a class where pupils had different editions of the same text. There are lots of issues blocking the changes we are discussing but, in my view, there are enough books in the system to facilitate any scheme that might be introduced in the future.
Ms Deirdre Sullivan:
Thank you, Chairman. I endorse everything Ms Lynch has said regarding school books. Parents are already under enormous financial pressure. A survey we conducted found that 48% of parent associations are raising between €2,500 and €10,000 per year in contributions to the running costs of schools, with an additional 14% raising between €10,000 and €30,000. That is a huge amount of money for parents to contribute to the operation of schools even before one takes account of the cost of books and uniforms.
Mr. Don Myers:
Deputy Ray Butler raised a very interesting point in regard to patrons' involvement in decisions on such issues as uniforms. In some schools parents have a say in those types of decisions, but in more schools they do not. It is perhaps going too far to say they are dictated to, but in many cases parents have little say on these matters. I spoke last night with a person whose child will go into first year in September. This parent has received a request from the school for €100, comprising €50 for the book rental scheme and a €50 contribution to running costs. The letter states: "The additional €50 annual contribution is to cover costs such as student journals, personal accident insurance, locker rental, photocopying, newsletters, school reports and telephone and postage communication with parents". Any parent receiving such a letter will be given pause for thought. It could certainly be argued that it is ultimately down to the patron to step up to the mark on such issues as school uniform costs. After all, the board of management is acting on behalf of the patron. As such, it is not really feasible for any patron to claim it has no control over what the board does.
In regard to iPads and other communications devices, we have fought vigorously in regard to costing. The bottom line is that iPad devices are working out at approximately €500 apiece. We are arguing over school books costing €450, yet at the same time we are talking about a device that costs €500 before one purchases a single book. A sense of perspective is vital in this discussion. We have gone down the road of Android devices, which are half the price, and one publisher has even got into QR codes. There is certainly a momentum in this regard.
Ms Lynch made a vital point regarding the number of books in the system. At post-primary level, publishers are telling us that only a tiny percentage of books are updated every year. Yet parents tell us the costs arising from the incidence of new editions is crippling. All of the costs are falling back to parents. I endorse everything that was said by my colleagues in this regard - we are getting hammered. Parent associations were not set up to engage in fund-raising for schools. That was never their intended purpose and that is the message we must drive home. The function of parent associations is to allow parents a role in seeking to address difficulties that arise in the running of their children's school and to offer suggestions for improvements. We are willing to play our part in whatever way we can, but there is little we can do without support.
Ms Audrey Deane:
I wish to comment on the digital divide which is coming down the tracks with the expansion in the usage of information and communications technologies in the education system. At the moment that market is being run by publishers for profit, which is fine. It is a business model. However, this is about education and it should not be in that domain. We have spoken to the Minister about the degree of practice within the publishing sector. We cannot go into it too much on the record, but there really is a lot of reform needed there. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is seeking a clear message from the Minister in regard to the leadership he will offer on this issue and his strategic intent to regulate the industry. We would go further in seeking the establishment of a task force incorporating expertise from a range of domains, to report within a short timeframe. Its members would include economists, software developers, education bodies, organisations such as our own and, vitally, parents.
Parents are the missing group in this room. They are being dictated to. They receive another little letter home in a school bag. How many more can we take?
That brings me to my final point. This matter needs to be re-calibrated and reformed. It cannot continue to be the ludicrous condition that a local school principal can decide what is going on at that school. They are in receipt of public funding. That must change. We need parents as partners with the patron bodies and it needs to happen fast.
Ms June Tinsley:
I want to contribute on a couple of points. Deputy O'Brien mentioned the start-up costs associated with school book rental schemes. My answer to him would be that there is a need for investment of the school book grant as the start-up fund. In my experience, because we set one up in my school, the principal was proactive in it and gave us the pot of money that he received as the school book grant to enable us to start it up. As Ms Lynch correctly states, between setting up those grants and getting the books back within the system, if that grant is reinvested over time it shifts the paradigm, from the parents funding the cost to the school providing the books. It is a system that operates in many countries and it should be operated here. The school book grant scheme is the vehicle to get us to that destination and we need that vision to get us there. There needs to be buy-in from all communities, including principals, patron bodies and parents, towards school book rental schemes so that there is no stigma attached to a school book rental scheme and it is available in all schools.
Correspondingly, in the case of school uniforms, there is a role for the Department of Education and Skills and patron bodies. It is not acceptable that such a hands-off approach of the school uniform being dictated by local boards of management. The Department and patron bodies have a role to play and we need to challenge that. At the end of the day, they could mandate that all schools pick one uniform item on which to have a crest.
Ms June Tinsley:
It would be a combination of legislation and a cultural shift. Even parent representatives on boards of management can feel quite inadequate or not represented strongly enough. It takes a school community to push this. It could be as simple as choosing that there would be one item of clothing that would have the school crest which would ensure that they would still have the school identity and the school ethos would be represented, but that it does not need to go on a blazer, gaberdine or tracksuit top. It would be a conscious decision to scrap all of the other items of school uniform that require that crest on it. It should be floated as an idea.
On the other issues, digital books or e-books certainly came up in the Barnardos survey last year. Increasing numbers of schools, on their own initiative, are pursuing this. It requires the Department of Education and Skills to take leadership on this because there is an absence of a policy approach to it.
Lastly, in connection with the voluntary contribution, parents relayed to us tactics that schools are using to put pressure on them to pay the voluntary contribution, effectively, stigmatising their child because they had not or cannot pay it. That is a totally unacceptable tactic. Children go to school to be educated, not to be victimised because their parents cannot pay the voluntary contribution.
Ms Audrey Deane:
These two pages on which we all worked collegially have all of the solutions. Basically, it is a range of options. It is a no-brainer. The bodies with which we worked committed to ensuring that it got to the boards of management, which are the accountable ones which make the decisions.
Mr. Fergus Finlay:
I do not have much to add. In response to the question raised by Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and particular having listened to what Deputy Butler had to say, if it were the view of this committee that a body such as the Competition Authority, among others, should be asked to look at the issue of school books and school uniforms, I suspect one would start seeing action quickly. There are cartels in operation in these areas that are keeping prices artificially high.
That is interesting.
I will make a couple of points. It was interesting what Deputy Butler stated about the shoes. My daughter is eight. She has her first communion on Saturday and I am still trying to buy shoes for it. I went into a shop of one of the named brands and it stops its children's range at size 3, and she takes a size 3. I wonder is she into adult shoes at eight years of age. I suppose there is an issue that children are now much bigger. It is not only my daughter. It seems to be a phenomenon. They are growing very fast, probably, more so than in the past.
There is a couple of issues. One matter a member of the public raised with me was that the book rental scheme does not cover matters such as art materials and that discriminates against those who might be interested in art. There may be comments on that.
I note that in some schools it does not seem to be a voluntary contribution when they send out notes looking for payment, for example, for art materials, computer material or whatever. Some schools are bending the rules considerably. In that regard, the committee visited Finland where schools are not allowed charge fees. They are also not allowed bend the rules for voluntary contributions or by holding fund raisers. The other point is that everything is paid for in Finland. Ms Tinsley spoke of a cultural shift. There is a more egalitarian society in Finland. One can see it across the board. All of the members were really impressed that it seems to infiltrate. Even when one speaks to politicians on the left and right, they all talk about equality.
Parents are represented here because most of us are parents or have family with children, and the parents council is represented here as well. Parents play a role. Recently, I was at a talk where a principal of a disadvantaged second-level school spoke of how he wanted to attract middle-class parents to try to achieve a better mix in the school - I suppose the idea was to bring everybody up in the school - and he succeeded. One of his approaches was to bring in a school blazer. That was one of the ways he attracted middle-class parents. Parents play a role in this. It is not as though they are innocent actors. There are parents affected by this but there are also parents playing a role in driving the need for expensive-looking uniforms, etc. Are there any other questions or comments?
The issue of competition between schools is a driving factor in many of the unnecessary burdens that are placed on parents. Although the central issues here are voluntary contributions, books and uniforms, there is a legislative way we could go down in terms of changing the relationship we have with patron bodies. Patron bodies guard their independence as sacred and the responsibility of the Department is merely to fund them, pay for their teachers, fix their buildings and leave everything else to them. We must change the nature of that relationship.
The Finnish position is completely different because there is no competition between Finnish schools. In the school district, there is one school. They do not have a tapestry of 3,500 primary schools which they must fund, light, heat, insure, etc., which is what we spend much of our funding on.
While the Department must do what it has to do, there is a responsibility of leadership on patron bodies and individual boards of management that could drive down these costs. There must be a cultural shift. We should be reverting to the ideal of free education and it should not be culturally acceptable for some of these practices to be allowable within the school system.
Ms June Tinsley:
On the type of school book rental schemes, the Department issued guidelines but it is up to each school to determine what they want to cover. In our case, the parents' association is taking the lead on it and on what we want to cover. We would like at least all text books to be covered. In the school in which I am involved, we are covering the text books, the copy books and the stationary but not the arts and crafts materials. There needs to be a model set out to ensure that it covers as many options as possible for parents so that they are not burdened with additional extra-curricular matters such as arts and crafts materials.
Ms Audrey Deane:
It is about reform and accountability. In many cases, parents are not very empowered because they are at the school gate if they are there at all. They wonder who is on the board of management, how does one get there, and whether its members are hand-picked by the principal. It can be quite a closed arena and this needs to change. We are looking to our legislators and representatives. We would like an accountability framework, whereby schools need to show they have considered ability to pay and can evidence they have a variety of practical options available to reduce costs. This means walking the walk and not just talking the talk, which means being accountable to parents.
Mr. Don Myers:
Parents had a wider choice of where to send their child to school 15 or 20 years ago because it was easier to enrol. Today parents look for a school which sets out the child's career. The difference in funding of various types of secondary schools is crazy. Voluntary secondary schools are funded €90 per pupil less each year then a comparative community or comprehensive school and €212 less than a VEC school. This is a tiered system which should be examined. A better funded school can offer better resources. I commented on a particular school seeking €50 for a book rental scheme and €50 for a school contribution. I spoke to a single mother who sends her child to a different school in the same town who must pay €200 for a uniform and €250 for books for first year. This is the difference between two schools in the one town. We need to examine this at the top level also to see where we can equalise it. The single mother I spoke to is quite entitled to get the same for her child as the child who pays €50 for books and €50 for a school contribution.
Ms Áine Lynch:
We must be careful about saying legislation will fix this. We have a lot of legislation, some of which is not being enforced. At present it is not permissible for schools to request enrolment fees but we know schools do it. One can say we must introduce legislation, or the legislators must fix this, but the major issue is the cultural shift required. We must examine how to change the relationship between schools and parents to one about the education of children and school communities. If we accept schools are not funded sufficiently then school communities, and not parents, should examine the funding issues. At present, the shortfall is met through parents' associations, individual parents, voluntary contributions and other means, but parents' associations and parents should be taken out of the picture. They could become part of a funding committee in a school to examine shortfalls, but the relationship between parents and schools must change from being a dialogue of finance to one of education.
The committee will produce a report which will include recommendations, and Deputy Ó Ríordáin is our rapporteur. At the end of last year we met patrons to discuss this issue and we have received submissions. We will draw up our report shortly and will keep the witnesses informed.