Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Back-to-School Costs and Schoolbook Rental Schemes: Discussion
I welcome the witnesses and wish to draw their 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. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice 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 or it identifiable. I advise witnesses that the opening statements they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I extend a similar note of advice to Members.
This session is devoted to the following agenda. First, we are engaging in a follow-up on the joint committee's report on tackling back-to-school costs and the announcement in the Budget Statement on 15 October to establish schoolbook rental schemes. Last June the committee launched a report on tackling back-to-school costs. The report was prepared for the committee by Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, as rapporteur. It was drawn up following a public consultation process which was followed by committee meetings attended by a number of main stakeholder groups. The report made a number of recommendations directed at the Department of Education and Skills and school boards of management. It is timely for the committee to evaluate what progress has been made on this important matter and to consider what further action is required. The committee will have noted the announcement made by the Minister for Education and Skills earlier this week on school uniforms.
I welcome the following representatives to the meeting: Mr. Hubert Loftus and Mr. Matt Ryan, Department of Education and Skills; Mr. Ferdia Kelly, general secretary, and Fr. Paul Connell, Joint Managerial Body; Ms Áine Lynch, chief executive officer and Ms Deirdre Sullivan, National Parents Council Primary; and Mr. Don Myers, president, and Mr. Jim Moore, national president, National Parents Council Post-Primary. They will all make presentations on this important matter. I invite Mr. Loftus to make his opening remarks on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills.
Mr. Hubert Loftus:
The Department welcomes this opportunity to respond to the committee on its report on tackling back-to-school costs and the proposal to establish book rental schemes. The report on tackling back-to-school costs highlights the financial pressures for parents associated with schooling arising from the cost of schoolbooks, school uniforms, curricular and extra-curricular activities and voluntary contributions. The Department notes that many of the recommendations in the report focus on the role of schools and patrons. We will outline the Department’s perspective on these issues and any actions it is taking on them.
The report looked at the cost of schoolbooks. To reduce costs, it made recommendations that schoolbook rental schemes should be available in all schools and that workbooks should be banned. The Department encourages all schools to operate schoolbook rental schemes. In the recent budget, it was announced that the Department is to receive €5 million from the proceeds of the national lottery licence transaction to allow primary schools to invest in book rental schemes. Further investment is to take place over the next three years to support the establishment of book rental schemes in all primary schools that do not currently operate them.
With regard to workbooks, the Department issued guidance in 2012 to all schools outlining a number of strategies to avoid the need for workbooks or to allow for workbooks to be re-used from year to year. Effective teachers use a range of active learning approaches in the classroom rather than over-reliance on textbooks and workbooks.
With regard to school uniforms, the report recommended that schools should be encouraged by their patron bodies to introduce generic uniforms. The committee will be aware that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has expressed his concern about costs incurred by parents on school uniforms. It is important that schools take account of the wishes of parents on this issue. Earlier this week, the Minister issued a press release requiring schools to ballot their parental community on school uniform policy. The Department will engage with school management on that point. It will make progress in the coming weeks.
During the course of the school year, the Minister intends to publish his plans for a parents' charter that will strengthen in general the position of parents within our school system. Changes to the Education Act 1998 will be important in underpinning such a charter and will form part of these proposals.
With regard to curricular and extra-curricular activities, the committee’s report noted that extra-curricular activities are, in theory, optional. In practice, this is not always the case. The report also noted that curricular activities that occur during the school day should not incur any costs to parents. The Department's position is that schools must offer full access to the curriculum during the school day. Compulsory additional payments cannot be sought for any in-school curriculum provision, and all pupils should have equal access to the curriculum offered.
With regard to voluntary contributions, the report recommended that the practice of requesting voluntary contributions should be greatly discouraged, if not completely eliminated. Any discussion about voluntary contributions and funding of schools has to be considered in the context of the Government’s budgetary programme to reduce public expenditure to sustainable levels. The challenge for all schools is to ensure that whatever funding is provided by the Government is used to maximum effect. The Department's position is that, apart from the recognised fee-charging second level schools, recognised schools are not permitted to charge school fees. Voluntary contributions by parents of pupils in such recognised schools are permissible provided it is made absolutely clear to parents that there is no question of compulsion to pay and that, in making a contribution, they are doing so of their own volition.
The timing and manner in which such voluntary contributions are sought and collected is a matter for school management. Their collection should be such as to avoid creating a situation where either parents or pupils could reasonably infer that the contributions take on a compulsory character. The Department has no plans to prohibit such voluntary contributions. The committee members may be aware from the draft general scheme for an admissions to schools Bill that schools will be required to declare that no deposits, fees or contributions will be sought or charged as a condition of application for enrolment or for continued enrolment.
Fr. Paul Connell:
We welcome the opportunity to speak to the committee. We have looked at the report carefully. We are disappointed it did not take into account much of what was said on the previous occasion. We have sent in a written submission on this point so I will not dwell on it. We welcome some of the initiatives with regard to the book rental scheme put in place by the Minister for primary schools. It is indicative of where we are that most of our colleagues across Europe have books provided by the state for all pupils. That point should be made and is perhaps glossed over. It is Government policy that has us in the situation where books are so expensive for our parents.
With regard to book rental schemes at second level, there is a difficulty in the sense that we have a new junior certificate programme coming in. It does not make sense for schools with the no book rental scheme to start one right now because they will put a lot of money into something that may not be used if the junior certificate curriculum changes.
The second thing we noted when we were here is that technology is changing rapidly. The use of e-books is coming into schools and that solves a great deal of difficulty with regard to the weight of schoolbooks. It also has other advantages but we need to look at the area rather than looking at something that may be obsolete in a number of years. The committee and politicians have a role to play in this. E-books have a prohibitive rate of 23% VAT. We mentioned that before but there was no mention of it in the report.
The other area that needs to be tackled is publishing. While we commend the Minister on his charter with the publishers, we must examine the business of licensing with regard to e-books. If parents buy books for the first child, they can be passed on to the second or third child with no difficulty. However, publishers are insisting a new licence must be issued each time for each child. This is scandalous and should be tackled.
With regard to back-to-school costs across the board, we welcome the initiative taken by the Minister with regard to uniforms. We do not have a difficulty with this because we work very closely with parents. We do not have a difficulty because our parents are at the core of what we do. Without the parents, we would not survive. The submission from the Department of Education and Skills recognises that funding is limited and the reality is that, as we see from the recent ESRI report, 30% of funding comes from our parents. Without that funding, we could not exist. The report suggests voluntary contributions should not be allowed. We agree, but in the current situation it is impossible and our schools could not survive without the resources our parents provide for us. We welcome any initiative and to do otherwise would be contrary to everything we have been doing for many years.
Outside the fee-paying sector, it is accepted that financial contributions to schools must remain voluntary and that no linkage should exist between admissions procedures and the making of such voluntary contributions. That continues to be the case in our schools. As schools and school managers, we are acutely aware of pressure on parents but it is delivered through Government policy, which has cut funding by 11% over the past four or five years. It continues as an ongoing pressure.
We welcome initiatives such as the summer works scheme being restored. It is important to us. We hope other schemes will be put in place. Our schools are doing their very best for our pupils. We strive to give them the best education possible, including extra-curricular activities.
A wide range of extra curricular activities are available in all our schools and to all our pupils at no cost to any of them. The impression which might be given that these things are charged for is completely erroneous in our system.
Another issue on which I would like to focus is that patrons do not run our schools. If members read the Education Act 1998 carefully, they will see it states that it shall be the duty of a board to manage the school on behalf of the patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents and to provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student at the school for which that board has responsibility. We do not represent patrons or trustees but we support boards of management which have the responsibility for running the schools. To suggest that patrons have a role in school uniforms is nonsense. It is a matter for the boards of management which work very closely with parents, parents' associations and so on.
Whole community involvement in funding was mentioned in the report. Everyone should be aware that boards of management are representative of the communities from which they come. Our finances, reports and otherwise, are available, contrary to what was implied in the report that they are not. They are freely available. I encourage the committee to continue to do the good work it is doing and to encourage the downward trend in school costs. We would maintain it is Government policy which has, unfortunately, caused a great deal of difficulty for our parents. We are at the edge of this. We are trying to do our best for our pupils and our parents. We work very closely with them and will continue to do so.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I will not read through the report because I am aware members have copies of it. I will refer to some of the key points in it. We very much welcome the section on culture change. We need a culture change within schools because for many years we have campaigned about the fact that the relationship with parents in schools is often a financial one, whether it is back-to-school costs, with parents' associations effectively being fund-raising committees. We very much support what the report says around culture. I suppose the parents' charter will be the initial vehicle which will bring about some of that culture change and how the education system engages in dialogue with parents around their children's learning. We cannot see any progression on that at the moment but we very much hope the parents' charter will be the vehicle that will do that. We look forward to being engaged in the development of that charter.
In terms of the voluntary contributions, we call for them to be completely prohibited. When we surveyed parents on voluntary contributions, we found that 65% of the parents who responded to us were asked for voluntary contributions but 35% were not asked. We believe in those situations where schools are not asking for voluntary contributions, more work needs to be done on how they are managing their finances and what is happening in those schools in order that we can get a better picture of why those schools are not asking their parents for voluntary contributions. We think that could lead to some insight into what other schools could put in place to avoid them.
We were pleased the committee took up the National Parents Council's recommendation to establish finance committees in schools. The role of the finance committee would be very different from boards of management in schools or parents' associations, but at the moment, the parents' association seems to be the main additional funding body within a school, so if additional funding is needed, it usually finishes up with dialogue between the parents' association, the principal and the board of management. We would like separate finance committees to be established in schools which would represent all members of the school community. It would mean, therefore, the parents' association would not be seen as a fund-raising committee but as having a very important job in the school in terms of a peer support group to other parents in supporting their children's learning.
We very much welcome the budget announcement of an additional €5 million towards schoolbooks. We would like to see how that will fit into the suggestion of the five year template for the delivery of an entirely free book scheme. While we very much welcome that initial commitment, the recommendation from the committee of an entirely free book system is something towards which we should work with that €5 million rather than just inputting a sum of money and in a few years' time looking back and wondering where it went. There needs to be a structure in terms of how that delivers what we all want.
In terms of curricular and extra-curricular activities, I hear a number of people say there should be no charge for curricular activities during the day and yet we know they are being charged for. One of the main ones is swimming. There are few situations where a child attends swimming and is not charged for it. There are many other instances during the school day where parents are asked for contributions towards curriculum areas. It is very clear from the Department that this is not allowed but what are parents to do when they are put in a situation where they are being asked for this money and, if it is not provided, the curriculum activity cannot be provided to their child or to other children in the school?
In regard to uniform costs, we very much welcome the announcement this week by the Minister and the fact all parents in the school will have an opportunity to engage in a ballot system. Some parents are more vocal than others, so not every parent's view is heard when parents are being consulted on an issue. Therefore, the aspect of this where there will be a ballot of all parents is very welcome.
Mr. Don Myers:
I would like to update the committee on what we submitted last May. The cost of school uniforms is a big issue for us. This has always been a major issue financially for parents at post-primary level. Last April, the National Parents Council Post-Primary, the National Parents Council Primary, Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with the support of all the other education partners, issued a document reviewing school uniform policy. This was also done with the support of the Minister for Education and Skills. As the committee will be aware, the Minister announced on 11 November that the education partners will now be invited to engage with Department officials on how to implement this change which will include compiling a template questionnaire that schools can use to consult parents on uniforms. This is very welcome and is a sign parents need to be involved. This is a start. The National Parents Council Post-Primary will engage in that dialogue on preparing the questionnaire. It is long overdue and a move in the right direction.
The cost of schoolbooks is another serious issue for the National Parents Council Post-Primary. We are aware of bills of €450 and €500 for books at post-primary level. We welcome the extra funding for book rental schemes in the primary sector and hope that funding will be put towards book rental schemes in the post-primary sector. We are aware that in the digital era, e-books are a thing of the future. The big thing is that, as of late, parents are starting to realise the licence for an e-book is a one year or a three year one and that when it expires, the book dissolves. They were not aware of that until now. There is a relatively new publisher - I have attached an appendix to the presentation for members - which has produced books at much cheaper prices, including free e-books. My argument with the publishers is that if one publisher can do this, why can the others not do so? I am not a teacher but I respect the fact the people who put these books together are teaching our education system. However, I have serious issues with the cost of books.
In regard to the transition year programme, schools are finding it difficult to maintain the service given the costs incurred. The mission statement 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 would welcome help from the Department of Education and Skills on this. We are also aware that parents, in some instances, have helped schools to run programmes which would not have been possible otherwise. It is a known fact that programmes cannot be carried out in some schools because they do not have funding.
The voluntary contribution is a major burden on parents. It is sought to make up for the deficit in funding from the Department. I have a copy of a letter which was sent to a parent recently stating that her child would be enrolled in first year in September 2014, but only if she paid €300 before 25 October 2013. I cannot condone that. It is very wrong. The other side of the coin is that schools are strapped for cash. Funding is not available and such requests of parents are unfortunate. The burden is being placed on parents. Parents are overburdened and one must ask how light the lining in their pockets will become.
I welcome the announcement by the Minister of the proposed development of a parents' charter. We will have a big role to play in that. Empowerment of parents will make a big difference. Up to now parents have had no say with regard to many aspects of their children's education. Empowering parents will also help schools. Co-operation between all partners in education is key, going forward. If we can work together at national level, there is no reason co-operation at local level cannot work too. We appreciate that schools are doing their best with limited resources and we would urge Deputies to work to provide more assistance to schools.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions today. I will address my initial questions to the departmental representatives. There was an announcement this week about the resumption of the minor works scheme. How much funding is available under that scheme this year and how does that compare with previous years? The representatives said it is not the Department's intention to stop schools from seeking voluntary contributions. Has the Department information on whether the contributions have increased in recent years and, if so, why?
I have a number of questions for the representatives of the Joint Managerial Body. Who decides whether a school will have a uniform? Are parents in general consulted on that question? Where a school adopts a uniform policy, are there many instances of that policy being reviewed over time? The Department made an announcement on school uniforms earlier this week. Was there any consultation with the JMB prior to the announcement? I presume there was some discussion or consultation in advance of that announcement.
Fr. Paul Connell indicated that 30% of funding comes from parents.
I ask Fr. Connell for a breakdown of that figure. What is that funding used for? How much of the funding comes from voluntary contributions and how much from other sources, such as fund-raising? Fr. Connell said he was disappointed that many of the points he made at a previous meeting of this committee were not taken into account in the report. I ask him to elaborate on that. If voluntary contributions were no longer permitted, would it be possible to continue to run schools? I suspect I know the answer. At present, schools are under-funded so if we want to get rid of voluntary contributions, we need to address that issue.
I also ask the representatives from the National Parents Council to comment further on the issue of voluntary contributions. The data suggest 65% of schools seek voluntary contributions from parents while 35% do not. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on that.
I thank the representatives of the various bodies for coming before the committee. Ms Lynch referred to €5 million for schoolbooks and I ask Mr. Loftus to clarify an issue. I understood that €5 million would be available every year for the next three years, giving a total of €15 million. When I discussed this issue with the Minister, he said the €15 million would be sufficient to ensure that every school could put a schoolbook rental scheme in place by the end of this Government's term.
In the context of some of the comments by representatives of the JMB, I fully accept that schools are not being funded adequately by the Department and that parents are being asked to make up the shortfall. No one will argue with that basic point. On the question of e-books, the representatives are correct in their contention that it is our responsibility, as legislators, to deal with the issues of VAT and licensing. We have raised this matter with the Department and there are some issues with the VAT in the context of EU law, but I fully accept it is our problem.
I was surprised by the tone of the JMB's response to the committee today. Fr. Connell said the committee did not take on board much of what was said during our earlier hearings, but I disagree with that point. The committee took on board a lot of what was said at those hearings. On the question of school uniforms, the witness said it was alarming to discover that committee members demonstrate a lack of understanding of the respective statutory roles of patrons and management boards. He cited the Education Act of 1998, section 15 of which reads, "It shall be a duty of a board to manage a school on behalf of a patron and for the benefit of students and their parents". In the section of the JMB submission referring to book rental schemes and the allocation of text books, it is stated the JMB is the main decision-making and negotiating body for the management authorities of almost 400 Catholic schools. Is the JMB suggesting there is no role whatsoever for patrons in terms of school uniform policy and that it is solely up to the boards of management to make decisions on that issue?
The JMB asserts in its submission that this committee ignored a number of significant factors impacting on school uniform decisions, one of which is the fact that more expensive jumpers and so forth are generally multi-year items, while cheaper versions require frequent replacement. As a parent, I can tell the JMB representatives that is not the case. My children have to get a new school uniform every year and those uniforms are damned expensive. The school uniform consists of crested jumpers, tracksuits, coats and pinafores. There is no option in the schools my children attend to purchase generic school uniforms. A school jumper alone costs approximately €50 and one is lucky to get a year out of it. I do not agree that more expensive jumpers are generally multi-year items. That is simply not the case. I am not too sure what the witnesses mean by their assertion that we cannot rely on big department stores for continuity and I ask them to clarify that comment.
The submission concludes by suggesting that keeping recommendations grounded in the real world would be more helpful.
Would Fr. Connell point out the recommendations in the report that are not grounded in the real world so that the committee can take the opportunity to revisit them?
The idea behind the report was to move the debate on the cost of going back to school away from an annual airing by journalists in August and September which is then forgotten about to a constructive pragmatic approach to the annual struggle that families face to meet these costs. Nobody is denying that the funding to schools has decreased in the past number of years as a result of the crisis in the public finances. The joint committee is trying to open up the conversation on the issue of back-to-school expenses. We launched the report in June and have invited the relevant bodies to come before us again.
There have been welcome initiatives. The decision on admissions policies is welcome. I hope the payment of an enrolment deposit will be outlawed. The recommendations on the school book rental scheme have been well rehearsed. An announcement on school uniforms was made during the week.
An issue that I would like the panel to respond to is the competition between schools. There are 4,000 schools throughout the State in a country with a population similar to that of Manchester. Obviously schools are under pressure to boost their enrolment figures. As a consequence, schools must present themselves to be more appealing to the parent body. That is the reason extracurricular activities are put to the fore, crested jumpers come into play, and iPads are all the rage. I would like to hear the witnesses' reaction to that.
I think many of the suggestions that have been made are sound. We must have a deeper discussion on how schools are funded. The reason for introducing a finance committee into the mix was to give a clear picture of the financial constraints or pressures on an individual school and whether the money is spent appropriately. If a school does not have the resources to provide heat and light there is obviously a fundamental problem with the funding mechanism of the school and that has to be made known and transparent. The Department must be made to take responsibility for fixing it. It should not necessarily be the case that a school should have to have a fundraiser. The body that has responsibility in this area must deal with the issue.
Following on from Deputy O'Brien's comments, I too am disappointed with the submission from the JMB. We are trying to develop a collaborative approach to finding answers. The tone of the JMB document is all wrong; it is bordering on sarcastic, and I do not think it is constructive. There is a leadership vacuum in the JMB. If the members of this committee were to take a similar attitude in the topics we deal with, nothing would ever be done. To suggest that the JMB has no voice when it comes to a policy on uniforms would strike most committee members and parents as bizarre. We all know and accept that schools are under pressure. We also know that parents are under pressure. It is the responsibility of all of us to try to find solutions. For the JMB to produce a document which in my view is dripping in sarcasm, to offer no concrete, practical, positive or generous solutions and to suggest that the committee is not living in the real world and to abnegate responsibility for the cost of uniforms that are being used by individual schools under the patronage of JMB is surprising. If that is to be the level of engagement with the committee, I ask the JMB to revisit and be a little bit more generous the next time its representatives come before us. This issue will not go away.
Mr. Hubert Loftus:
Deputy McConalogue raised the issue of the minor works grant. A total of €28 million will issue to primary schools in the coming weeks. That is the same level of funding as issued previously. The make-up of that grant is a standard base amount of around €5,500 and a per-capita amount on top of that for each pupil, with a minimum threshold for those schools that have fewer than 60 pupils. It is the same as previous years.
On the question of voluntary contributions, we said in our statement that it is not our policy and we do not have plans to stop voluntary contributions, but the Department policy is very clear that voluntary contributions are, as they state, voluntary. We do not have specific data in the Department on the levels of voluntary contributions. I know that public surveys have been conducted. I know the National Parents' Council in its submission today stated that 65% of parents are asked for a voluntary contribution and 35% of parents are not asked for a voluntary contribution.
Deputy O'Brien asked that we clarify the schoolbook rental scheme. I will ask my colleague Mr. Ryan to deal with that.
Mr. Matt Ryan:
A survey was conducted in the autumn of 2011 and we got a very good response rate from primary schools. At that stage 76% of primary schools had book rental schemes in place. By our calculation, €5 million each year over three years would be enough to provide a seed capital scheme for the remaining primary schools.
Fr. Paul Connell:
I will address a number of the points raised. First, I very much regret the comment that our presentation was somehow sarcastic. That would never have been our intention. We respect the work of this committee and we all have the same goal in view, which is to provide the best education for our pupils while keeping the costs as low as possible for everybody. That is our drive. The last statement in our submission was that recommendations should be grounded in the real world. One of the four main points as identified by Deputy Ó Ríordáin was a recommendation for the complete prohibition of voluntary contributions. While we agree with that statement absolutely, and we hope it will come to pass eventually, in the real world, as the Deputy said himself, schools cannot survive without the voluntary contributions of the parents of our students.
Deputy McConalogue asked what use is made of the voluntary contributions. Our funding from parents comes from two elements: fundraising, and the actual voluntary contribution that we seek from parents after their children have been enrolled in our school, not as a condition of enrolment. That distinction is very important to us. It is completely voluntary. To put it in perspective, yesterday I paid €19,000 for oil for my school. Last year oil cost us €32,000 for the school year. I would not have been able to pay that oil bill if I did not have the voluntary contributions from the parents of the students in my school. That is reality I live with. I report to a board of management, which is responsible for the finances of the school and must stay within budget. There are no bailouts. We must stay within certain parameters. If we cannot get the money from the Department, we have to raise it from the parents. There is no other way of doing it. That is the reality.
On the issue of patronage, the JMB represents the boards of management of our schools and not the patrons. That is a misunderstanding. The JMB does not represent the patrons and we are not here on their behalf.
We are here on behalf of the boards of management of voluntary secondary schools across the country. The boards of management make the decisions. That function is delegated to them by the patrons in each of our schools. Those boards are representative of the community and of parents. They make the decisions about the running of the school in conjunction with the parents.
I wish to respond to Deputy McConalogue's question. I am the principal of St. Finian's College in Mullingar, which was a boarding school until 2002. We phased out the boarding element of our activities and became a co-educational school. We did not have a uniform up to that point. When we polled the incoming parents, 98% of them voted in favour of having a uniform. That has been the position ever since. We regularly consult the parents in each of our schools with regard to decisions being taken in the school. While many of our parents' associations have started to help us to fund our schools, the role of the parents' council is entirely different from that of a fundraising body. Rather than acting as a fundraising body, the parents' council assists the school in teaching, learning and communicating with parents. It is vitally important to us to keep that communication open. While fundraising is necessary, it does not necessarily have to be done by the parents' council, and often is not.
I was also asked about competition between schools. Again, I would like to ground this in the real world. During the Celtic tiger era, when things were very good in this country, education was not funded to the extent that it should have been. Matters have got worse in recent years, since the budgetary crisis started. All of our classes in all of our schools are at maximum sizes. The pupil-teacher ratio continued to get worse until this year when, happily, it was not touched. We welcome the decision not to interfere with the pupil-teacher ratio in last month's budget. It is important to realise that many things have been happening in schools. For example, guidance counsellors have been taken out. If there is pressure on schools to have certain numbers - that may be an issue in some schools - I suggest that funding is an issue in that context. We have small schools that are finding it hard to survive. They do not know where they will get the money to do things by the middle of the year. That is a very bad situation to be in. I would like to make the point, in the context of what has been said about crested jumpers and iPads, that the goal of schools is to provide the best education possible for our children. That is what we try to do. We continuously have to deal with curriculum reform and change things for the better. That is what the Department is doing. We all try to do it together.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
I support all the points that have been made by Fr. Connell. I must express some dismay at Deputy Ó Ríordáin's comments about our submissions to this body. We have always treated it with the utmost respect. I am looking at the submission on this topic that we made here on 10 October 2012. We pointed out the reality of the financial situation in our schools. We mentioned that between 30% and 33% of everything that is spent in voluntary secondary schools is raised locally. That is done out of necessity rather than out of desire. We also commended the return of the summer works scheme, the efforts of the National Procurement Service in saving money and the Minister's agreement with the book publishers on a code of practice, with specific reference to the five-year moratorium on changing books. We acknowledged the publication of the draft guidelines on book rental schemes. We pointed to the value and benefits of information technology as a learning tool. We called for the abolition of the 23% VAT rate. We raised an issue with regard to licences. On the issue of uniforms, we acknowledged in our submission that "the cost of uniforms must be kept to a minimum and this can be achieved at local school level through a process of consultation on issues such as the style and content of the uniform [and] best value in sourcing the uniform". We spoke about the key value of management, teachers and, most particularly, parents working together in the local school community to ensure the best possible education and, as Mr. Loftus has said, the best possible use of the resources. That is a quick summary of our submission. I am dismayed that Deputy Ó Ríordáin has suggested that we were negative in tone or adopted an approach that was not appropriate in some way. In our response to last July's publication of the report on tackling back-to-school costs, we did not intend to set out to be sarcastic - we intended to portray the reality.
I must interrupt Mr. Kelly because we need to move on. I remind him that this committee is not the Department of Education and Skills. The membership of this committee is representative of all shades of opinion in the Oireachtas. We drew up a report based on the hearings we held. I know the JMB was represented at the meeting at which we launched the report. My understanding at the time was that the body welcomed the report.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
I have to put the record straight. We spent the first page and a half of our original submission outlining the reality of the financial position in the schools. We gave detailed figures to break down that reality. That does not appear in any shape or form in the report. It is not even acknowledged.
When we were preparing this report as an Oireachtas committee, our remit was to make policy recommendations. We do not represent the Government. In our report, we took into account what people had to say. Obviously, there was no need for us to include a verbatim rendering of what everybody said. That was not the purpose of our exercise. I want to keep the meeting moving. I will come back to the JMB and the NPC. I know they would like to respond on a couple of points. I will bring in the three members of the committee who have indicated before I come back to the witnesses.
I congratulate Deputy Ó Ríordáin on his report. As I have said before, it is good that the patrons are at arm's length from school management. I would not welcome their interference in the management of the various aspects of school affairs because that would allow a hard line to be taken on ethos or some other matter. It is just as well that they are at arm's length. A great deal of work has been put into this good report.
I would like to raise a couple of issues. I would not like to be marking one of the people in attendance on the football field because if I gave him one rap, he would give me four back. Ms Áine Lynch raised the issue of money being paid for activities such as swimming and music. I have mixed feelings on the matter. I noticed that Mr. Loftus initially used the term "should not" but he later used the term "must not". It is like the driving test. I wonder whether there is wriggle room in schools. Are there sanctions if charges are imposed? I believe the very small amount paid by pupils for swimming in schools - perhaps €5 per lesson - has saved a great deal of lives. By providing this for a few bob, schools have saved many lives. Many children who otherwise would never have learned to swim have been taught how to swim and how to deal with being in the water. I feel there must be a wee balance in this regard. There is an ideal situation.
There is a practical day-to-day situation in the real world and we must work through that as well. I would not take a hard line on those issues.
As regards school uniforms, there are more jumpers and shirts found in the lost property boxes of schools at the end of the year which, if redistributed, would not have to be bought the following year. I was a school principal for a while and decided there would be no crest on the school uniform. School uniforms are fabulous. They stop fashion shows. School uniforms are good and they are cheaper. Even the dearest school uniform is cheaper than other clothes that children have to wear during the school year. We did not have a school crest and I am proud to say my former school still does not have a crest. It is the only primary school in Louth that does not have a crest. Eventually things come into fashion. At the moment schools are providing a Ferrari for the cost of a Ford Focus because that is all that is available. I have a Ford Focus and that is the reason I mention that. The schools are proving a great education. Fr. Paul Connell said this is Government policy. I believe Government policy in education is good. Although I am a Fine Gael Senator, I believe the Labour Party Minister for Education and Science is doing a hell of a job with the resources available to him and did not increase the pupil-teacher ratio in most schools. He played a blinder at Cabinet level. I do not know how he got away with it. He deferred it and then got it, but it is gone now.
The return of the minor works grants is the best news ever because schools will be able to pay for minor works and will be able to pay the oil bill next year.
I will be brief. I wish to ask one question and make a comment. Much of the debate has been around a form of words which were used in a report. It is important that this is done in a collegiate way. It is fair to acknowledge that it is not the committee's job to fund schools but it is its job to give a balanced report of why schools are in the present situation. We need to work on amending the wording to ensure we reflect that because principals are working in a difficult situation, as are all school staff, as a result of other funding cuts. They are at the front line and must deal every day with parents of children, bills they cannot pay, fund-raising and asking parents for money for which they wish they did not have to ask. We need to find a way around this difficulty. I acknowledge the work Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has put into this report on which he has been working for a long time. We need to find a form of words that can accommodate everybody and recognise that is the other half of the picture. It is not fair for us to criticise schools without acknowledging they are working in an environment where they have seen their funding cut quite dramatically.
I wish to put one question to the Department officials. If I do not get to hear their response I will read it in the transcript. A good point was made on e-books, a point we have discussed previously at the committee. There does not appear to have been any move by the Government to address the issue of technology. Some schools will look at this and ask what is the point in buying a load of books if nobody will be using them in two years time. There is good practice for buying not just iPads, which are expensive, but other tablets can be bought quite cheaply. We are in a bizarre situation where it can sometimes cost more to buy a book electronically than a new paper copy of that same book. That is crazy. We have to find a way through that. Within schools we should be at the forefront of technological change and ensuring we use it to educational advantage. It addresses all the other issues we have discussed previously about children carrying heavy schoolbags and so on. I appreciate that the VAT rate is an issue for the Department of Finance. I know there are European implications and so on, but I would like to see more of a push on it at departmental level. Is this an issue that has been discussed by the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Finance in the context of budget discussions or elsewhere? It is an important point and a solution to many issues, and it should be recognised as such. In our report I would hope we would make a recommendation that the e-books issue be pushed strongly.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. I echo the comments of my colleagues in commending Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin on his work in this area. It is an area in which he has a huge interest and he has dedicated much of his time to it. I commend him on doing that.
I wish to focus on two areas, uniforms and books. In regard to uniforms, I was travelling from Glenbeigh to Caherciveen on Monday evening doing my clinic round and listening to George Hook interviewing the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. It was quite an interesting interview. The issue of the tracksuit came up and George Hook said what a practical uniform it can be. I would have to agree with him. I remember my days in primary school when there was no uniform but usually a tracksuit was worn to school. It was a very practical and adaptable form of clothing. One could be sliding around in the muck playing soccer or football and a few minutes later in the classroom the muck could be brushed off and one would be dry. It is a very affordable uniform for parents. We need to be practical in the way we look at how we dress children going to school. That is an issue that should be examined. The day of the one or two shops being the only shops providing a very formal uniform with a crest are long gone. We need to modernise and be sensible in our approach to this issue.
In regard to schoolbooks, I welcome that the State is intervening and assisting in the rental schemes. That is a positive development. I am concerned that we are not getting the bang for our buck that we could be getting. Mr. Don Myers mentioned, rightly, the substantial difference in costs of textbooks from the various suppliers. It is important to point out-----
I will not name companies. One particular company provides books in physics for leaving certificate students at €17.95 while other competitors charge €36.99. It caters for the same curriculum and covers more or less the same issues. It is used in some schools, in a small percentage of the market, and is an excellent book. Similarly in the maths area, books cost €15.50 versus €29.50. For construction studies, books costs from €19.95 versus €37.95. Geography books cost €19.95 versus €34.95. These are significant price differentials.
There is a need to communicate this information to schools and if there is a fear among schools that new entrants to the market may not be up to standard or, perhaps because of a lack of familiarity, teachers are reluctant to go for new books, we should consider introducing a standard, a quality mark, from the Department of Education and Skills to textbooks that meet certain standards. That would be a sensible way forward. We have standards in restaurants, accommodation and various food items. That would help teachers make decisions when choosing textbooks that are up to standard. As far as I am aware there are no textbooks on the market that are not up to standard. They are all up to standard but there are substantial price differences. New entrants find it hard to get into the market because they do not have the same reputation.
We need to look at this. I raised this issue with the Minister previously and was referred to the guidelines in regard to how to operate schoolbook rental schemes. There is not enough emphasis in the guidelines on encouraging teachers and those choosing textbooks to shop around for better value for money. A potential 50% saving could be made in certain subject areas for schools and parents. In some cases, the cost of buying the book from the alternative source is only slightly more than what it would cost through the book rental scheme. This gives food for thought.
What is the view of the Department on how we could encourage better competition and on how to encourage teachers and those choosing textbooks to shop around and go for better value books? A concern I have is that when a school enters a scheme, it is locked into that scheme for a number of years. This is a barrier to emerging companies that are offering better value for money. What is the view of the witnesses on that?
I thank the witnesses for their submissions. My first question is directed at Mr. Loftus. I welcome the report and the further allocation of funds in the budget for the book rental scheme at primary level. While I understand there are many constraints with regard to the roll-out of the book rental scheme at second level, are there any plans or discussions with regard to rolling out such a plan for second level schools? I have taught in both a vocational school and in a voluntary secondary school. The vocational school operated a book rental scheme and I found it more economical. Students seemed to take greater care of the books because they had to hand them back at the end of the year in good order. Senator D'Arcy mentioned school jumpers being left lying around at the end of the year. In my 25 years teaching I have seen schoolbooks left lying around by students who had no respect for them at all. Significant savings could be made in this area. Are there any plans for rolling out the book rental scheme at second level? I understand the issues that will arise with such a scheme, but we should collaborate and consider it.
I am and have been a strong advocate of school uniforms over the years. As a parent of five children, I know the cost of school uniforms with crests is significant. I welcome the initiative being introduced by the Minister for Education and Skills and would give him an A1 for his effort in this area. This is an initiative that should have been introduced years ago. Fr. Connell referred to two particular clothing shops and implied that cheaper means a poorer quality. I disagree. Great quality can be obtained at a lower cost. Some of my children were required to have a crested polo shirt for PE, at five times the price a normal polo shirt of equal quality was available elsewhere. I find this unacceptable. Parents are concerned about this and some have come to me to express their concerns that some schools have a policy of insisting uniforms are bought from specific shops. I welcome the announcement made the other day in this regard.
I understand the view expressed by Fr. Connell and Mr. Kelly and understand the difficulties with regard to instituting a new book rental scheme in secondary schools. I have read through the lengthy task list they provided and appreciate it involves significant extra work at both the start and the end of the year. How much work would be involved throughout the year? I do not believe we should say "no" to a book rental scheme at second level because of the extra work involved. What additional requirements are necessary to implement such a scheme?
Does the JMB believe, as expressed in its submission, that it is Government policy to grossly underfund education? I may be incorrect, but a comment the witnesses made was that it is Government policy to make books expensive. What is the JMB's view on in this regard? I may have taken this up wrongly, but I noted it at the time.
With regard to the link between parents and the JMB, it is stated in the submission that schools and parents should not be adversaries. I agree. While there were many positive comments on the management of schools in the recent chief inspector's report, it stated in the report that only 56% of parents surveyed during the inspections in 2012 indicated that the board of management reported annually to them on the work of the school. This is something that needs to be addressed. Only 44% of the parents surveyed that the schools regularly sought parental views on school matters. The JMB has stated that accounts from the board of management are freely available. What measures are in place to make parents aware that board of management accounts are available? Sometimes parents do not even know their parental representatives on the board of management, not to mind having access to the accounts.
We will begin with a response from the National Parents Council. Deputy McConalogue asked about voluntary contributions, so perhaps we can have a response on that. I hope Ms Lynch has taken note of the many other questions asked.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I have, and I will do my best to answer them. We conducted a survey on voluntary contributions over a two week period at the beginning of this year and received responses from 900 parents. The first important point to emerge from the survey was that 35% of schools did not ask for voluntary contributions. This gives rise to the question as to what happens in those schools. Another point that arose was that a significant number of parents felt they were put under pressure to pay the voluntary contribution and that they did not feel it was voluntary.
There is a direction from the Department on the issue of voluntary contributions, but it is a bit like the curriculum issue where although the direction says one thing, when something else happens, there appears to be no sanction. What happens to make a change? Currently, there is no real direction. People contact us sometimes and we refer them to back to the school, pointing out that insisting on a contribution is unacceptable in the context of the Department's direction. If the school does not respond to that, there is little parents can do within the school, even at a collective parent association level.
We must acknowledge that parents have children in the school and they will only go so far to cause friction because they must leave their child in that school every day. They might raise an issue collectively or individually, but they will only go so far with it. This happens with many issues brought to us. People come to us, particularly when they have received a first, second and third letter asking for the voluntary contribution.
Sometimes the colour of the writing in the letter changes. Sometimes the child is given the letter in school and it is quite clear how the letters have been allocated. It becomes increasingly difficult for the parent to engage with the school around education. A parent might receive three reminder letters about not paying a voluntary contribution. For a parent who might not have been able to pay for the swimming and whose child might be wearing half of the uniform, the dynamic is very different at the parent teacher meeting in October, if the parent goes at all. We raised this issue at the first meeting here. We do not believe schools set out to cause difficulties for parents, but because of the current financial situation the nature of the dialogue creates difficulty. We are trying to create solutions without additional funding, although the solution is additional funding. There is tension in the school system because schools feel they are not adequately funded. That is not a tension with the Department but it is a Government issue. There is a tension between schools and parents about getting that additional funding from somewhere.
We suggest setting up a finance committee that would change the dynamic from a very individual dialogue between a parent group and a school group to a more collective discussion. This issue will not go away because, although 35% of schools may not be asking for voluntary contributions, we have anecdotal information that fund-raising has increased in those schools. That becomes a collective responsibility because individual families are not asked directly but it is still a huge pressure and parents tell us they will not join parents' associations because they know that if they do they will be asked to raise money and they do not feel comfortable doing that. As a national parents' association - I know our colleagues in the post-primary area are doing the same thing - we are trying to promote parents' associations as bodies that support children's learning and engagement with the school, as the joint managerial body, JMB, said. If parents will not go near them because they feel they are fund-raising bodies that works directly against that mission, which research has shown is very important.
In response to the question about competition between schools and appealing to parents with an iPad or extracurricular activities, when parents decide where to send their children to school they will look for the obvious differences between schools. They will decide on the basis of distinctions such as iPads or extracurricular activities. We hope schools would make distinctions based on transparency and openness, on working with parents and supporting children's learning so that parents would decide on that basis, rather than on whether the school uses iPads. If schools use that form of dialogue, parents may engage at a different level rather than saying an iPad or an extracurricular activity makes the difference. There is work to be done to educate both sides about the types of things that would differentiate between schools.
In response to the question about swimming lessons and how many lives they have saved, we would never say the extracurricular activities for which there is a charge are not useful. We regard swimming as very useful and we have supported its inclusion in the curriculum. There is no curriculum activity that should be charged for during the school day, regardless of its use. If it is part of the curriculum, it must be provided as such. Just as schools would not charge for the core curriculum subjects, they should not charge for music or swimming or any of the other curriculum subjects that are required.
I think the Department clarified the point about the schoolbook rental scheme and the €5 million per year. The €5 million a year over three years will provide seed capital for the establishment of book rental schemes. That is very different from having a free book scheme. I am concerned that €15 million over three years is a large sum of money to put into schoolbooks. Where will they go? Schoolbook rental schemes can be very different beasts in different schools, depending the number of parents involved, how many books they cover and how many are included. We welcomed the recommendation for free schoolbooks, and believe this should be part of the framework working towards free books. We would like that €15 million to be put into that framework in order that it will happen in five years' time rather than turn around then and say, "Oh but we have book rental schemes". We are not in any way down-playing the huge investment, we would just like to see how the framework continues to make sure that in five years' time those books are within the system and are being used free of charge.
Mr. Jim Moore:
I echo Ms Lynch’s sentiments about the voluntary contributions. There is no such thing as a school that does not get a contribution from a parent in some shape or form. In our experience many schools do quite well in managing the parent who is not in a position to meet those demands. Underpinning all of these discussions is an effective school community which will survive only when parents, staff and management work together. That is utopian from the point of view of trying to achieve certain things in the short term but much good work is going on. One of the difficulties for us is promoting what is good practice, making sure that parents are not isolated because of their inability to pay the subscription for which they are asked. We all agree that no subscription should be required. The isolation of parents is a particularly serious problem because in every other aspect of education we are asking for more parental engagement. A chief inspector's report, which was commented on recently, referred to parents' associations communicating with parents, and boards of management communicating down to parents' associations. That is where there is a big gap. How do you overcome that? We are a national body, primary and post-primary, trying to get parents to engage and we are being presented with obstacles that will create a greater divide if we are not careful. That is very important.
Voluntary subscriptions - the level of them, what they are spent on, transparency, etc - are a huge problem. We would welcome the minimisation of that activity but we also want to acknowledge what is going on. It is very important for parents to be involved in the financing of schools. All too often we find the parents' associations being treated as fund raisers. We are trying to change the culture to one of effective school communities. For example, post-primary schools are not included in the last budgetary recommendation for the book rental scheme. The argument will be made that there is to be a new junior cycle, but we need to plan for that. We need to make sure the transition to a new structure is effective. That will be a serious problem because there is a momentum to get this in place but do we have the wheels under the wagon to make sure it is delivered in every school?
The schoolbook rental scheme does exist in post-primary schools. In some schools it survives only as far as junior cycle. Some schools are very effective and apply it up to senior cycle. We have had presentations from schools around the country that are prepared to show other parents' associations how well they can operate. One school in particular has more than 800 students and the school management delivers a book rental scheme to each student. Parents go to the school with their children in August to set this up and to make it work. There is good practice but parents need to be empowered and equipped for that.
Senator Jim D’Arcy made an interesting comment about lost property and school uniforms. There is a lost property department in every school. I attended a school parents' association meeting last March and the parents asked the principal where was the lost property department. They were then shown all the jumpers and jackets that were kept there. They took them home, washed them and came back in and displayed them in the school for a day. In some cases, students suddenly discovered where they had left their jumpers and there was a group of parents who were delighted to avail of the unclaimed good quality clothing.
This was a small activity which had a significant impact on the school environment. The pressure on parents is isolating a great number who will not come forward to parents' associations because it will mean getting involved in this type of struggle which they also have to deal with in their own homes. We cannot let this run forever. We need to be careful and aware of the pressure on parents.
Mr. Matt Ryan:
Senator Moran asked about the roll-out of seed capital at second level in addition to primary level. We had done some work on this matter last year to produce some estimates and costings. We estimated that to have a scheme like that at both primary and post-primary level would cost between €35 million and €45 million over a three year period. We do not have that kind of funding. The €5 million we are getting in 2014 and for the following two years only allows us to do it at primary level. That is the current situation and it is a resource issue.
Deputy Griffin referred to textbooks and the variation in cost between different publishers. While I acknowledge this is the case, the decision as to what textbooks are to be used is done at school level and it is not a diktat from the Department. In essence, the school is free to source its books from whatever publisher it wishes. If a publisher anywhere can provide books of equal value at a much cheaper cost, I suggest that schools should be going there.
As I mentioned in my initial contribution, the guidelines circulated to schools should include that particular suggestion because it is not very clear in the guidelines that value for money should be one of the key aims of the scheme and that options should be explored by schools.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
Senator Moran raised issues to do with the book rental scheme. As with all such issues, as an umbrella group for management in voluntary secondary schools and at school level, we advocate engagement with our colleagues in the National Parents Council Post-Primary and with our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills. We also advocate that similar collaborative work should be done at local level such as conversations around book schemes, uniforms and any other issues that arise. I will explain to Senator Moran that boards of management in our sector are obliged under the articles of management to issue an agreed report from each meeting. Mr. Jim Moore made the point about communication. We remind the boards of management repeatedly about the importance of an agreed report being issued to the parents' council and to the teachers. Likewise, we have issued a template to the wider school community for the reporting of annual school accounts. We remind schools that this should be regular reporting. We participate in communication processes, as we did in April with the National Parents' Council, as mentioned by Mr. Don Myers. We were signatories to the document that went to all schools seeking a review of the uniform policy.
Mr. Ferdia Kelly:
Under the articles of management there is an obligation. Section 20 or 21 of the Education Act requires an annual report. We keep reminding our schools of this obligation. Mr. Jim Moore put his finger on the issue; it is a question of communication. There are difficulties in communicating from the parents' council level to the parents in the wider community or the engagement or otherwise of parents. The key point is the education of young people and we must work together to ensure young people get the best possible education. We will take on board suggestions that are made in this committee and in other places and in our work with the National Parents' Council Post-Primary to ensure that because that is what we are striving to do at national and local level.
I acknowledge other members have indicated but we agreed that speakers would be allotted only three minutes speaking time. The second level school I attended was very innovative because my first school uniform was a 1960s Aer Lingus cabin crew uniform which the school had bought in a junkyard sale as a means of helping parents. That was at the end of the 1970s.
I will finish this section of the meeting by thanking all our guests. It is an ongoing process and we welcome all observations, including critical ones.