Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 30 August 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
School Facilities and Costs: Discussion (Resumed)
I ask members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode because they interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report our meetings. Television coverage and web streaming will also be adversely affected.
I thank all the witnesses for their attendance today. This is the second day of our education committee summer school and today we are dealing with No. 4, engagement with stakeholders on school costs and capitation grants. We appreciate the witnesses' attendance as we know this is a very busy time for educators. Many of the witnesses made presentations previously, including Mr. Mulconry who was with us yesterday.
The purpose of this part of this meeting is to have an engagement on school costs and capitation grants to inform the committee and enable us to write a report and make recommendations to the Minister and Department. This is the third hearing as part of a series of engagements by the committee over two days on the general theme of school costs and facilities and challenges facing teaching principals, in particular. In this session we have eight different sets of witnesses. The committee will examine the cost of sending children to school, the level of the capitation grant payable to primary schools and voluntary post-primary schools, and whether this grant is sufficient to minimise the need for additional financial contributions by parents and guardians. We are examining the impact of the costs on parents and schools.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Áine Lynch, chief executive officer, National Parents Council primary; Mr. Geoffrey Browne, president, National Parents Council post-primary; Ms June Tinsley, head of advocacy and supporter engagement, Barnardos; Ms Marcella Stakem, social policy development officer, Society of St. Vincent de Paul; Ms Mary McDermott, social policy analyst with One Family; Mr. Ed Farrell, chief executive officer, Irish League of Credit Unions; Dr. Michael Redmond, director of research and development, Joint Managerial Body, which was also represented yesterday; and Mr. Seamus Mulconry, general secretary, Catholic Primary School Management Association. The submissions received from the groups make for compelling reading. We are fortunate that Barnardos, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the credit unions do such good work. All of us who are involved in these issues find these organisations very informative.
The format of this part of the meeting is that I will invite the witnesses to make a brief opening statement limited to three minutes. Members will than have an opportunity to engage and ask questions and the witnesses will have an opportunity to respond.
Before we begin, I draw witnesses' 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 Chairman to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise witnesses that any opening statements they make will be published on the committee website after this meeting.
I call on our first witness, Ms Áine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council primary, to make her presentation.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today's meeting. When we received the invitation to make the submission we decided to do a survey of parents to specifically address the questions the committee was asking. The survey was carried out in the two-week period between 20 July and 2 August and received just shy of 1,800 responses. As members have received our submission, I will not go through all of the statistics set out in it. However, I will draw attention to some of the conclusions we have drawn from the survey.
We found that a significant number of parents, 76%, indicated they were asked to pay a voluntary contribution each year to help with school finances. Of those asked to pay a contribution, 73% indicated they received the request directly in writing, which indicates that the general practice is not to request voluntary contributions anonymously. Of those parents who paid the voluntary contribution, 54% said they felt under pressure to pay it.
We feel this raises serious questions as to how voluntary this contribution is in reality. Despite many reassurances by the Department of Education and Skills and Ministers for Education and Skills that this contribution is a voluntary payment and there should be no pressure on parents to pay, these survey results show that is not the reality on the ground. This issue needs to be addressed urgently.
The level of contribution requested is mainly in the region of up to €150, with 81% of parents telling us that is what they paid. However, 118 respondents indicated that they were asked to contribute in excess of €200. There appears to be a lack of transparency or information for some parents on financial issues in the school, with 35% of respondents saying they do not know how the contribution is spent or whether they have access to this information. In a similar vein, only 17% of respondents said that the school made the accounts available to parents, with 45% responding that they did not know whether they had access to this information and 38% stating that they did not have access to the information on the school accounts.
The information about what the voluntary contribution is spent on in schools and whether parents are asked for additional payments beyond the voluntary contribution shows that money provided to schools by parents is being used for day-to-day running costs and facilitating children’s access to the curriculum. This survey would seem to indicate that there is a significant disparity in the funding to primary schools and the costs incurred in delivering a quality education to children. It would appear, therefore, that the capitation grant is insufficient to minimise the need for additional financial contributions by parents and guardians.
A previous witness addressed the impact on schools and parents. We are concerned that this is also having an impact on children in the classroom and on their education. The constant requests for voluntary contributions, money for photocopying or arts and crafts, and all the different things parents are asked for establish a financial rather than an educational relationship between parents and the school. We do not think that should be the case in any situation, particularly for parents who are stressed and struggling to pay the contributions. We know from research that parents' involvement in their children's education and learning is crucial. In early years and primary education especially, their involvement is most crucial in terms of outcomes for children. Research also indicates that what parents do in those early years is more vital than school at that time. If a tense relationship is established around financing in those first few weeks of school, there can be a significant impact on how parents subsequently go into the school to discuss educational matters.
Mr. Geoffrey Browne:
I am grateful for the opportunity to present to the committee this morning. The National Parents Council post-primary, NPCpp, applauds the current ambition of the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Department of Education and Skills to make Ireland’s education and training service the best in Europe by 2026, and we assure those involved of our support towards achieving this.
While our students can avail of some deserved relaxation and holiday time during the summer, the early weeks of July pass very quickly for parents as the planning to meet the expenditure required to see their children through school must be addressed. The end of August is an expensive time for all parents with children in education, and the costs of uniforms, books, annual voluntary contributions and the many other educational expenses to be covered loom large for all families. What aspires to be our national free education system is, as it currently operates, sadly far from free. The costs for parents and families continue to create a most stressful experience throughout the year but particularly at the end of summer when a new school year looms.
The costs involved in attending school have become one of the biggest worries for parents at back-to-school time. The survey conducted by our colleagues in the Irish League of Credit Unions confirms that 36% of families will end up in debt to meet these costs and 15% will cut their spending on food to pay them. Every year, the same items top the list of back-to-school costs, and the NPCpp continues to highlight them. The cost of books stubbornly remains the most expensive single item, despite most schools endeavouring to offer book rental or similar schemes. The ongoing so-called new edition scenario, together with one use only workbooks, leads to families being unable to utilise older siblings' books. This must be addressed by the authorities with publishers and suppliers.
While we appreciate that some limited success has resulted from the efforts to reduce the cost of school uniforms, this has almost been fully offset by the rising cost of gym gear. The increasing cost of sports kits together with the continually high charge for extracurricular activities are also of particular concern. We attended a recent Oireachtas joint committee meeting on childhood obesity at which all parties were anxious to see efforts to promote healthy exercise and activities among our youth. We suggest that given the current national concern for the health and welfare of our children and the drive to have our teenagers become active away from TV and Internet screens and rooms inside their home, extracurricular activities at school must be a priority. They should be supported and funded as such.
The reduction and withdrawal of funding by the Department of Education and Skills, especially following the near collapse of the Irish economy almost a decade ago, have led to insufficient funding of many activities in our schools. Costs to maintain the fabric and function of our schools, along with most of the holistic aspects of educating our children through extracurricular activities, have been borne not by the Department but directly by parents. Ever-increasing so-called voluntary contributions are in most cases no longer voluntary. The NPCpp consistently and frequently receives calls from distraught parents reporting that their children have been denied lockers at school, not allowed to participate in transition year activities or some other school activity or have been similarly penalised because their parents were unable to pay the voluntary contribution.
Mr. Geoffrey Browne:
As to whether the level of capitation grant payable to voluntary post-primary schools is adequate, it is not. The level of capitation grant allocated to this sector per student was €345 in 2010 and €296 in 2018. The boards of management of voluntary schools have to pay the first €562.50 of each teacher’s salary, which is called a salary grant. We call for this to be abolished.
Parents have played their parts in many ways throughout the economic downturn and during the recent recovery. The NPCpp reiterates its support of the ambition for Ireland to have the best education system in Europe by 2026. We believe that, as parents, we have more than demonstrated our commitment to education during the past decade by funding many of the activities and requirements listed above, inflicting a significant burden and stress on many families. Parents are not to be found wanting when it comes to our children’s education, but there are matters and activities outside school that we must also address, and our funds can be utilised better when we can support our children in these.
Ms June Tinsley:
Barnardos works with more than 15,000 children and their families every year across our 42 projects. We have been a long-time campaigner to ease the burden of school costs on parents because we see the huge financial pressure they cause for parents as they try to ensure their children can participate in school. We also see the negative, knock-on impact this can have on children.
Every year, we do our schools costs survey. This year, it was completed by more than 2,200 parents throughout the country spanning both DEIS and non-DEIS schools. Our survey is different from others as it only covers the basics. It does not cover things like school lunches, extracurricular activities or items for practical subjects. Our key findings this year were that the average cost for the basic items was €360 for a senior infant pupil, €380 for a fourth class pupil and €765 for a first year pupil. The survey found that more parents are going into debt this year than last year, particularly in respect of secondary school level, where 21% of parents were forced to borrow money to cover school costs. That means going to family, friends, moneylenders or credit unions. Other parents said they had either to juggle household bills or to take money out of savings to cover the cost.
The majority of parents reported an increase in the cost of school books. Parents are very frustrated by the lack of consistency in both the expense and the number of books required to teach the same curriculum from school to school. School book rental schemes are more popular at primary level than secondary, yet what they offer varies considerably. This reduces the saving that parents can avail of. Uniforms are more prevalent at secondary level than at primary level. The average cost can range between €100 and €200.
Similar to the National Parents Council, we found there was an increase in the number of parents being asked for a voluntary contribution this year. We know there have been some efforts to tackle school costs over the years. For example, there was the voluntary code with book publishers in 2011 and the circular which the Minister issued to schools last year. However, our survey tells us these measures are not really having an impact on parents. Parents are expressing frustration and feel overburdened by having continually to prop up Ireland's underfunded education system, which purports to be a free system.
Inevitably, families with the lowest incomes are disproportionately affected. For too long, our schools have been operating on a shoestring, having to rely on top-ups from parents to pay for essential items such as lighting and heating. We believe this is grossly unfair and it is something that we as a nation should be ashamed of, especially when we know the role that education can play in eradicating child poverty.
Barnardos believes that everything a child needs to complete the curriculum should be provided by the State, and Ireland is an outlier in this regard. We have carried out the costings for this, which have been verified by the Department of Education and Skills. We calculate that it would cost an extra €103 million to deliver free primary education to all children. It would cost €126 million at secondary level.
Ms Marcella Stakem:
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul welcomes the opportunity to make a presentation to this committees. SVP sees access to education as a critical enabler for exiting social exclusion and poverty. In August 2017, SVP received 5,000 calls from parents requesting back-to-school help. Per the latest available date, this figure is expected to be exceeded by 20% this year. Behind these figures, SVP members see the anxiety and stress of parents trying to juggle their low incomes to meet school costs. Curricular sport and music costs, exam fees, trips and fund-raising ventures are additional expenses on top of the substantial amounts incurred at the start of each school year for school books, uniforms and footwear, digital devices and school transport - the list goes on. SVP members report that transition year is a major source of financial stress for families. On average, completing transition year can cost between €300 and €900 per pupil.
I will outline some case studies that highlight the impact school costs have on families and children. One parent was extremely upset to receive reminder text messages concerning a voluntary contribution. She was a first-time caller to SVP. This was traumatic for her, as she regularly receives phone calls from her bank because she is in mortgage arrears. Separately, a one-parent family with four children and one child starting first year were confronted with costs of €700 for an iPad, a €250 registration fee, and voluntary fees for two other children at €180 each. We have also heard of low-income families going to moneylenders to fund school trips, particularly in transition year, as they cannot afford to pay.
While many SVP conferences do not give financial assistance towards voluntary contributions, they provide food vouchers. This allows parents to use money for the weekly
food bill to pay voluntary contributions. In other instances, conference members work with the school on behalf of families to negotiate fee waivers. We fully acknowledge that cuts to the capitation rates have meant that schools have little option but to ask for voluntary contributions. Ultimately, schools should not have to ask families to subsidise running costs and parents should not have to choose between food or paying a contribution towards their child’s education. Access to a free primary education is enshrined in the Constitution. SVP, therefore, wants an end to the practice of voluntary contributions.
In the 2019 budget we are asking for the commitment to restore capitation rates to 2010 levels, which was made in the Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 to be honoured. Over the medium term we are asking for the Department to carry out an independent assessment of the adequacy of the capitation rates and incrementally increase funding to schools so that all children have access to a high-quality, free and inclusive primary and secondary education. SVP also recommends funding for the school book rental scheme be increased by €20 million in the 2019 budget. This would allow more schools to avail of the scheme and reduce costs to parents. In the longer term, we would like delivery of an entirely free school book scheme.
Parents on low incomes are most affected by school costs. School costs also prohibit the full participation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in education. Underachievement in school can have profound consequences for children now and in later life. SVP contends that non-fee-paying primary and secondary schools need to be adequately resourced, which would ensure schools can carry out their intended role to educate future generations in an equal and inclusive manner.
Ms Mary McDermott:
One Family welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee. Both our written submission and this presentation arise from our work within the NGO sector. Many NGOs share our recommendations. The concrete recommendations we are putting forward today converge with theirs because they identify lone parents and their children as among the most vulnerable groups in society. Our presentation also arises from our direct service provision, our information and helpline services, our counselling services and our education provision. It arises from concrete engagement with many lone parents and their families.
Our commitment is to make one-parent families fully visible, acknowledged and supported in society, to facilitate their parenting, and to facilitate their own progression. This commitment is to acknowledge that lone parents and their children are exceptionally vulnerable to educational disadvantage. It is clear that this disadvantage arises in an educational infrastructure that has not yet adjusted to the reality that the nuclear family form is just one of a number of family types in Irish and European society. Parenting alone is something that many parents experience, for whatever reason, sharing or alone, either temporarily or permanently.
In our written submission, we set out the basic data with regard to lone-parent families. Such families comprise more than 25% of all families with children in Ireland, yet they experience a consistent poverty rate of 24.6%. The rate for two-parent families is 6.4%. Family homelessness disproportionately falls on lone parents, with 60% of affected families headed by females. The number of homeless children increases steadily. Figures are up and down each week, but the number is steadily heading in the direction of 4,000.
Lone parents' employment rate is 58.4%. The fact that 84% of lone-parent families are headed by females means that this income is reduced by 14% as a result of the gender pay gap. There has been a lot of research into the barriers to education and employment progression for lone-parent families and the observation that they are repeatedly forced into low-paid, unreliable and precarious work. Again, that is readily acknowledged. There is a great need for a systematic and thoroughgoing childcare system, and nuanced and targeted educational pathways must be made available to lone parents.
This is the description of the circumstances of the children of one quarter of all the families who are returning to school in September 2018. It is a pretty startling set of figures. The data are contained in our written submission. The data make it absolutely clear that without robust school-related supports, children of one-parent families are at a serious and sustained lifelong disadvantage from the beginning. Other submissions, along with our own, have outlined in detail the full range of requirements to be met in this matter. Hidden fees, clothing and uniforms, books, IT, extra-curricular activities and projects of all kinds are just some of the utterly overwhelming everyday costs that parents face, particularly lone parents. We are familiar with this reality. Our full recommendations are the restoration of capitation rates to 2010 levels, adjustment of the income thresholds for back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, restoration of those rates to 2011 levels-----
Ms Mary McDermott:
I will close by referring to the clear and present inequality created by the fact that the income threshold for a couple with one child applying for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance is €587.80, while it is €425.10 for a lone-parent family. Like the working family payment, it is deeply inequitable.
Mr. Ed Farrell:
I thank the Chairman and bid the committee a good morning. The ILCU is the largest credit union representative body on the island of Ireland. It was founded in 1960 to provide representation and leadership, co-operation, support and development for credit unions in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The ILCU today has an affiliated membership of 355 credit unions - 262 in the Republic and 93 in the North. Membership of the league is open to every credit union in Ireland.
Our submission to the committee is based on the results of our annual back-to-school survey, which is conducted on our behalf by iReach. A total of 1,000 people were randomly selected for the 2018 survey, 383 of whom were parents of schoolgoing children. Of this group of parents, 328 parents responded to the survey. The results of the 2018 survey indicate a rise in the number of parents in debt due to back-to-school costs. Well over one third of parents in Ireland say they are getting into debt to cover back-to-school costs. This is a noticeable increase on the 29% who reported being in debt last year. Parents of primary school children are, on average, in debt of €367 - up from €345 in 2017. For secondary school parents, the average debt reported is €443, compared with €415 last year. In the interests of time, I will not go through the finer details of the survey as they are part of the written submission to the committee.
One finding is that of the parents in debt, more than one quarter say they have turned to a moneylender in an effort to cope with back-to-school costs, and this is of concern. The figure is up from 20% last year. Of this group in debt, three out of ten said they have borrowed between €400 and €500, while more than one quarter had borrowed over €800. When asked why their preferred option was a moneylender, 46% of this group said they felt they would be guaranteed the money and that the approval processes in banks and credit unions would be more difficult. Some 42% said they felt they had no other option because they had a bad credit history. Of concern also is the fact that a significant number of this group, 77%, said they will use a moneylender again this year to cover the back-to-school spend.
The ILCU has some recommendations regarding the financial costs and the rates moneylenders charge. It strongly recommends that the Department of Education and Skills should continue to urge schools to address the issue of back-to-school costs. Suggested areas for cost savings include the introduction of non-badged generic uniforms, including sports and gym gear, the introduction of book rental schemes or the distribution of second-hand books, a reduction in voluntary contributions sought by schools, a reduction in the costs of extracurricular activities and the abolition or reduction of expensive school trips so as to reduce pressure on parents.
Mr. Ed Farrell:
The ILCU also recommends that a significantly reduced statutory maximum interest rate for licensed moneylenders be introduced. They are currently allowed to charge interest rates of 200% and a 100% equivalent in charges. In 2015 the credit union movement, together with a group of stakeholders, created the personal microcredit scheme, PMC, which we branded as “it makes sense” loans. This was to help people to have an alternative to moneylenders. Following a pilot involving 30 credit unions, it has now been rolled out nationally. Over one third of the 111 credit unions are in the scheme, which was included in the programme for Government. We are hoping for continuing Government support to help us and the stakeholder group to roll it out to every credit union on the island.
Dr. Michael Redmond:
The Joint Managerial Body, JMB, represents the management authorities of almost 380 voluntary secondary schools and we welcome the invitation from the Oireachtas joint committee to participate in this discussion.
Families and schools inhabit the same world and are not adversaries in the resourcing of back-to-school and other costs. School leaders do not operate in a vacuum and our principals and boards are acutely aware of the pressures on families and ensure they consult with parents on all key issues that affect them.
In our submission to the committee, the JMB asks that we focus on four achievable areas of action. On capitation grants, we know there is no such thing as free education; somebody has to pay for it. In Ireland, the policy is that the State systematically underfunds voluntary secondary schools and consequently, the school community must fill the gap. In 2010, a voluntary secondary school received a capitation grant of €345 per pupil whereas the capitation grant for 2018 is €296, which constitutes a cut of 11% on the 2010 amount. There also has been a raft of other cuts with which schools have had to contend in the past decade, including a 15% reduction in staffing allocation for special needs provision. All in all, the loss in grant-aided income is over 14%.
Added to this loss in revenue, we have seen significant increases in insurance and other costs which do not impact on the other sectors and consequently we urge that the capitation grant be increased substantially in the forthcoming budget. This position is consistently supported by family advocacy organisations and Barnardos, for example, reminds us that no other public service has to subsidise its funding to keep the show on the road. Why should the Department of Education expect schools to be obliged to undertake extensive fundraising activities from parents and staff to fund necessities? Schools should be educational, not fundraising, enterprises.
In addition to the unrestored general reduction in capitation grants over four budgets in recent years, voluntary secondary schools must raise, on average, over 30% of total annual expenditure through fundraising in the local community. This places a huge burden not only on families but also on school management and staff, reducing the time available for all the other responsibilities they must undertake. It is time for the longstanding and indefensible inequity in sectoral funding to be finally resolved.
Professor Emer Smyth’s 2013 ESRI study on governance and funding of voluntary secondary schools in Ireland stated that voluntary secondary schools received just over two thirds of their funding from Government sources while the vast majority of other schools in other sectors received a much higher proportion of funding from the State, with 90% in ETB schools and 93% in community comprehensives.
In the immediate term, the Minister must abolish the basic salary payment made by boards of management to their teachers, which is a unique feature of the voluntary secondary sector. A board of management with 30 teachers pays out almost €17,000 per annum that schools in the other sectors have available to use on the resourcing of teaching and learning. We urge committee members to support this measure.
One of the most significant costs to families relates to textbooks and the JMB has always supported the roll-out of book rental schemes where possible. By far the biggest barrier to setting them up is a lack of seed capital.
Dr. Michael Redmond:
As a first step, the JMB recommends that schools commencing the operation of book rental schemes be given seed capital.
Our schools have suffered a decade of cutbacks, which have yet to be restored. Young people get a single chance at education. The support of the Oireachtas joint committee is of the utmost importance at policy level as we strive towards a more equitable educational experience for this and for future generations.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I thank the committee for the invitation to the CPSMA to present to it but it would be remiss of me not to say this was an issue for all the primary management bodies. Last April An Foras Pátrúnachta, the Church of Ireland Board of Education, Educate Together, the Muslim Education Board and the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, jointly prepared and released a short animation putting forward the arguments for the immediate restoration of the capitation grant to €200, guaranteeing timely payment of the minor works grant and a phased increase in capitation grants to cover the actual core costs of running schools.
Since 2011, almost €110 million has been slashed from the budgets of primary schools due to cuts in the capitation grant, the grant which is supposed to cover the costs of running a school and pay for educational resources. To be fair to the Department, it resisted the cuts as strongly as possible but they were forced through. On average, the grant now only covers 50% of the cost of running a school and hard-pressed parents and local communities are contributing a staggering €46 million a year to keep the lights on, the doors open and the water flowing in schools across the country.
Because of the lack of Government investment, the parents of Ireland's young children are now paying a stealth tax on kids for something that should be free. Article 42.4 of the Constitution states "The State shall provide for free primary education" but it is not doing so. Instead, parents, principals and school boards of management are engaged in a near-ceaseless round of fundraising, bake sales and begging to make ends meet. The cost of underinvestment is not just money. An experienced principal engaged in a major fundraising exercise recently told me it was taking up to 20% of his time. That is time that should be focused on improving teaching and learning in his school. The opportunity cost to the education system is significant but we have no way of calculating the cost to our children.
Even the Government agrees that we are not investing enough in primary education.
The recent chief inspector's report pointed out that expenditure per student has fallen by 15% since 2010, and at primary level is now below the OECD and EU average. Ireland now spends less per pupil than the US, the UK, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Norway. Unlike these countries, Ireland also benefits from a vast volunteer army of boards of management which manage primary schools without pay or expenses. The irony is that school boards, principals and parents are being punished for their commitment and generosity in supporting schools. They take up the slack, so the Government is let off the hook. Why invest when parents will do it instead? Primary schools are now among the best fundraisers in the country, and have done everything from the usual raffles and bake sales to selling scrap steel and organising fundraisers based on the TV programme"The Cube". The only thing we have not seen is a school selling Peckham mineral water, but I am sure after this presentation I will see that.
Last year I heard the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, telling Mary Wilson on RTÉ's "Drivetime" that his budget had been crafted with primary school children in mind. He said he had been thinking of the boys and girls in primary schools, and had seen the atmosphere they are in, and he wanted them to have the best possible future. Both CPSMA and all the primary management bodies want to see that too. We urge the Minister to turn rhetoric into reality.
I have to leave at some stage but I hope we get through everything before that. I thank the witnesses for their presentations, all of which I read carefully.
This is a subject which is particularly close to my heart. We spoke at length about the costs for parents, and the fact that the schools are underfunded, which passes the costs to parents. In the case of primary-level children, the amount of money they are paying for school is unconstitutional, given that education is supposed to be free. We have discussed the pressures, but I would like to give a picture of what impact it actually has on people's lives, especially for lone parents.
Mr. Farrell and others have referred to loan sharks. In the case of Provident Financial, for example, the interest rate is between 35% and 40%.
It is where people get loans. It is not illegal or anything like that.
It is €35 to €40 for every €100. I have spoken to people in my community and my friends about this. One parent said they had to borrow €1,100 from a loan shark almost every year around August. They would repay approximately €1,430 over a 26-week period. This is somebody who is on welfare payments. To repay that would cost €55 a week for 26 weeks, and that would probably cover the cost of only one child, so they would have tried to save or meet the other children's needs in another way. There is often a choice of 26 weeks or 52 weeks with loan sharks. Obviously, they knock on one's doors every week, which is not a nice experience either. It is not something that comes out of one's bank account, or that one can keep from one's children. The borrowers get 26 weeks because they will need another loan at Christmas. They are already worried about Christmas so they say they will increase the amount they pay on a weekly basis in case they need help at Christmas. This is the cycle and it does not end. Twice every year, they will do the same and leave themselves in further poverty to meet those two costs.
On top of having to meet those payments, one has the added shame of a loan supplier knocking on one's door each week. One's child is dragged into that space then because one may not have that €55, so one hides in the kitchen in order to send one's child to school because there is a knock on the door and rent must be paid that week. One is hiding oneself and one's children in the kitchen, so the children already feel that shame. What bothers me is that when they leave the shame they feel within the home because they watch their parents struggling, they then go into the classroom and teachers further shame them in the classroom by making them stand up and asking them why they have not paid their book money. One teacher asked a child why their mother could not pay it with the children's allowance which was due the following day. This is the shame which is going on in classrooms. One child went home to her mother and asked if they were poor. An eight-year-old asked their parents if they were poor because they could not meet the costs in school.
There are so many examples of what is happening to children in schools. The sole of a school shoe might start coming off halfway through the year, for instance. Children have been sent home from school until they come back with a new pair of black shoes because they might wear the runners they wear at home. The school is to blame. The managerial boards can say they need to increase funding in the schools, but they can add to their recommendations. In their submission they can add the urgent need to stop the shaming of children in the classroom, or the doorstepping of parents in front of other parents as they drop their children at school to ask them questions about money and funding. That is what the school can control. It can be more sensitive, more aware and more understanding, and it should pass that message down to the teachers in the classroom. Who sends a child home because he or she had to wear runners because his or her mother was waiting to be paid in order that she could buy a pair of black shoes because there was a hole in the old pair and it was the middle of winter? That should not happen, and that is where the schools can take responsibility. I will completely support any school, parents' association, or organisation, and I will campaign and lobby for increased funding in schools, but I will not support the continued shaming and financial abuse of children and parents in the school system. That is something we can take better care of.
I do not have any questions. I have so many examples that have been sent to me and examples from my personal experience and my work in the community sector. My request today is that the people who have direct interaction with the schools, teachers and principals send the message that that is not how business is done. One should not make a child embarrassed to come to school, or make a parent feel so ashamed that the child misses school because the family is waiting for money to come in and the child does not want to arrive at the classroom door anymore because the teacher will ask them if the child has this or that. One parent wrapped her child's schoolbooks in brown paper, as was done years ago, because she remembered doing that herself and she thought it was a cheaper option. Her child was repeatedly told to put plastic covers on the schoolbooks. In primary school workbooks are now used rather than traditional books so there is not even the option to pass the books down to the next child because the books themselves are drawn and written on. We used to have the option that if we bought books we knew the next child and the child after that could have them in a given class. We do not have that option anymore. There are so many areas we can improve on. The naming and shaming of families must be where we start. When that happens parents and schools can work together because the parents will not feel too ashamed to interact with the schools. They can work together to demand free education. My request, especially of the managerial bodies here today, is to send that message to their schools.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations today. I am somewhat distracted by the passion of my colleague, Senator Ruane, and the stories she and her friends have lived through. We read about it in the paper but I know my colleague sees it every day. It has got to me, to be frank, but that is what needs to be heard in committees such as this. I commend Senator Ruane because she brings her passion and personal experiences to the table every time.
The Minister issued a circular last year on principles of cost-effective practices that referred to some of the issues Senator Ruane has brought up. It stated that all elements of a school uniform should be purchasable from various stores and only iron-on or sew-on crests should be used. There are references to the phasing out of workbooks between the time the circular was issued and September 2018. It is now September 2018. I am sure the witnesses are aware of the circular. I wonder is there data on how many schools have adhered to this?
The third point in this circular referred to the rewarding of schools for adopting these principles. I wonder which schools have been rewarded and why schools would have to be rewarded for phasing out workbooks, phasing out crests and having sew-on crests and for allowing parents to buy uniforms in any store. I question why the Minister indicated in this circular that schools should be rewarded for that when we are talking about a free education system. Is there any data on this? Has the Department followed up on this circular? Has anything been done or was a circular sent out to all schools and was just left there?
The TUI stated in its submission that the restoration of the capitation grant to 2010 levels would cost €18.5 million. The State currently funds 60 fee-paying schools to the tune of €115 million. I am interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on that disparity and how resources should be prioritised in light of that.
What are the main obstacles in rolling out an effective book rental scheme nationwide and how can they be overcome? What studies have been done on this? This week many households are under incredible stress from sending their children to school. We need to deliver a real free education system instead of having a so-called free education system.
One thing that did not come up in the submissions, unless I missed it, is children in direct provision. Their parents receive €20 per week. Surely those families should be getting extra supports or grants. Is there anything like that available for them?
What about homeless children? One in three of the homeless people in the country is a child. We know that 42% of homeless people are women, most of the time lone parents and often women who have left domestic abuse. Are there extra supports for homeless children who are going to school and their parents?
A 2013 ESRI study outlined how voluntary secondary schools are more reliant than other schools on sources of income such as voluntary contributions and the fundraising Dr. Redmond outlined. The study recommended that the future funding of second level schools needs to be taken into account. Has the Government made any changes to the funding since that 2013 report? Dr. Redmond referred to a parliamentary question in 2017 when the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, said he agreed that the priority issue is the removal of the basic salary payment of €563 per teacher. That was an answer to a parliamentary question on 23 November 2017. Has there been any progress made since then?
I thank all the witnesses for coming in today and for the huge work that their organisations have done. By and large these are small organisations and they have done massive work before coming in to this committee and they have given us food for thought. I was particularly impressed by the surveys that were done and I think it is important for this committee to get that type of real information.
Senator Catherine Martin mentioned the circular from last year. I do not know what effect it has had. If any of the witnesses have experience of that, they could offer an input. I am certain no school has got the bonus that was announced. Has it had any effect on the ground, in particular with parents, at whom it was directed? I direct those questions to Ms Lynch and Mr. Browne, in particular.
The Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, CPSMA, gave the figure of €46 million as the amount of contributions from parents funding its schools, so it is probably a little bit more in the primary sector overall. Is a similar figure available for second level in terms of what parents are putting into the school system?
I have met Ms Tinsley many times and she has fantastic ideas. Could she outline from where she got the figures for the free schoolbooks? I think there is a figure for the overall sale of schoolbooks in the country. In my experience, even with a schoolbook rental scheme, it still cost €50 a child, on top of the schoolbook rental in our school to buy books.
I ask the National Parents Council about school accounts and how money is spent. I am not disparaging any school. As I understand it, there is no obligation to put school accounts on a website. They must go to the patron, so the Joint Managerial Body, JMB, perhaps, could answer that. As far as I know, the law requires that they be open to inspection by parents but they are not generally available. That is something that I would like to see if the capitation is increased. To make a political point, the issue of capitation is a key issue in Fianna Fáil's budget priorities. I hope, if capitation is increased sufficiently, there would be a prohibition on non-voluntary contributions. The only way to make them voluntary is to anonymise them. Many parents will contribute, and that is great, but there will be no obligation and that is something I want to see happening.
I also thank the witnesses. I do not want to repeat what others have said but what has come up falls into two categories. Senator Ruane has argued passionately about what schools themselves can do. I was particularly struck by Ms Lynch's point that the relationship between a family and a school should not be financial; it should be educational. When parents think of school, they should be able to think of the educational and social development of their child and it should be a positive idea in their heads rather than the financial pressure that Senator Ruane, and the witnesses in their presentations, have so eloquently described. On the one hand there is that category of things that schools can do, and I will return to that momentarily, but I hope the witnesses involved directly with schools will take back the points made by Senator Ruane.
This committee needs to make recommendations about what the State and the Government can do. I support the restoration of the capitation grant to the level that it was at pre-2010 when it was cut. I think the State can afford to do that now. It is in a much better financial situation than it was in 2010. These are the kinds of things that can be done now. Barnardos, in particular, has argued for the constitutional right to free education to actually be free education. Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the Labour Party spokesperson on education, has passionately argued for that and pre-budget proposals in that regard will be forthcoming.
One thing that has featured across the various presentations and the views of the members of the committee relates to capitation and free books. I would like the figures to be as accurate as possible. A figure of €20 million for the cost of books at primary level seems to be agreed, but I do not know what the figure is for post-primary. Do any of the witnesses have a more accurate figure. Is it €20 million as well? I thought it was a bit more in post-primary. That is not a huge amount of money in the context of budgetary arithmetic. I know demographics are still putting pressure on the Department of Education and Skills at post-primary level but, at primary level, they are beginning to ease off. Making primary education free can now be achieved and that is something that the committee needs to put into its report. Can any of the witnesses clarify the figures in relation to the post-primary sector, because I am not clear from the data I have?
I wanted to follow up on what Deputy Catherine Martin said about children in direct provision and homeless children. The number of homeless children now stands at 3,867. I imagine that the majority of these children are going to school. There will be some preschool children in that group but I imagine the majority go to school. Obviously, it is much more difficult for the parents of these children to get things more cheaply. In some cases, they might even have had to change uniform if they have had to change schools. Does anyone have any direct experience of that? We need to put something in place that will give extra support to the children of people in direct provision and homeless children.
Regarding ending voluntary contributions, we need to find out the costs of necessities as opposed to what might be considered added extras. Transition year must be treated as a necessity if all children are to be able to participate in it. The idea that so-called voluntary contributions are going towards necessities that the State can afford needs to be addressed in our recommendations.
I return to the things schools can do. Funding has been allocated to allow schools to set up book rental schemes. In my experience, by and large, schools where parents have less income are very good at setting up book rental schemes. Perhaps I am wrong but it seems that they are the schools that make the effort to set up book rental schemes because they know that parents require them. There are schools that do not have book rental schemes where the majority of parents might be able to afford it but where there will always be families who cannot afford it. I would like to ask the managerial bodies in particular why all schools do not have book rental schemes.
The workbook issue has been raised so I do not think there is anything more I can add except to say it is no longer logical to have workbooks. These are a significant extra cost because, obviously, they cannot be passed on to other children. Uniforms constitute another issue. The point has been made so forcefully about crests that I do not need to add to it except to support the argument. It is possible to get generic school uniforms relatively cheaply whereas the ones with crests are much more expensive. I wanted to separate that issue into two categories.
It was important that the things schools can do were raised here today. I ask the various people dealing directly with schools to bring those back to their respective organisations. The Department could probably do more in terms of being more definite about some of these things rather than leaving it up to the schools, although I know there are restrictions in terms of what the Department can force schools to do. When we produce our report, we need to focus on what the State can and should do now that funding is available.
I thank all the witnesses for their presentations, which were powerful. I came home from London with my parents in 1979. My dad was a retired factory worker. I remember the shock when my parents realised that there was no such thing as free education because, of course, there was free education in England at that time. It is sad to reflect that in the nearly 40 years that have passed, things have got worse rather than better.
One thing my wife Ursula always says to our kids is that life is about choices. We should reflect on the choices our political class has made in recent years in terms of what our real priorities are. Let us be honest about this because everyone will agree with the witnesses and I am sure the committee will write a very positive report. In recent budgets, Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil, chose to cut capital gains tax, capital acquisitions tax and inheritance tax. It chose a €500 million subsidy, as has been pointed out by Barnardos and the TUI, to subsidise some of the richest hotels in the country. I can guarantee that when the Seanad sits again, we will have people, not from Sinn Féin or, to be fair, the Labour Party, the Green Party or Civil Engagement, standing up to demand the retention of that €500 million subsidy to some of the richest hotel businesses in the country. I ask how serious we are because it is clear that in my lifetime, parents and children have been failed completely by successive Governments. That is the reality.
Given that we cannot do everything and we do not have the money to do everything, why are we choosing to back subsidies to businesses and wealthy people who not need them rather than investing in basic decency in our education system so that we could become a republic? I would interested in hearing the witnesses' views because none of this is new. I remember Fergus Finlay making a powerful presentation on this issue a couple of years ago. This stuff has been out there for years. Every year, when it comes to budget time, children and parents are forgotten. I would be interested in hearing the witnesses' opinions on why this has consistently been the case. I can go back as far as 1979. Things have got worse since my parents were put in that position.
My second question is simple. Extortionate interest rates have been around for a long time. Does anyone know why successive Governments have refused to act on the issue? I know it has come up several times in the past. I cannot remember what the answer is. Can anyone shed light on it? From the powerful presentation made by the Irish League of Credit Unions, it strikes me that this practice has been curtailed elsewhere. For some reason, we, again, seem to be more persistent in bowing down to our financial masters rather than taking sensible concrete actions to support people at the very worst edges of this experience. I thank the witnesses again for their powerful presentations. Let us hope somebody is listening this time.
Normally, members of the committee leave politics outside the door. Since I became Chairman, we have had that tradition and respected one another in the work we have chosen to do as part of the work programme. I have always believed we have had a very good collaborative effort in that regard. I am, therefore, disappointed that on this occasion, Senator Gavan chose to bring politics into the committee room and denigrate some of us. I will not allow a reply because we will now hear from Senator Gallagher. I am a member of one of the parties Senator Gavan chose to denigrate. He must acknowledge that it was I, as Chairman, who suggested that we examine these very pertinent issues. I was very pleased that the members of the committee supported my suggestion. This is the first time this committee has met during the summer period to examine these pertinent issues, which is important.
I also welcome the witnesses and thank them for their contributions. It is a pity that neither the Minister nor any Government representative was available to listen to them. I pay tribute to Senator Ruane who said all that needs to be said regarding the voluntary contribution. As they say, sometimes we have to walk the walk to talk the talk. From her experience and those of her friends, Senator Ruane certainly nailed the issue for me, for which I thank and compliment her. Ms Lynch also touched on that issue when she spoke of the effect of voluntary contributions on parents who are not in a position to make them and on their relationship with teachers and principals. It is very sad to think that this happens.
We could divide this meeting into two parts, the first of which concerned putting schools under a magnifying glass to determine what we can do to alleviate the financial burden placed on parents by costs such as the cost of school uniforms. There may be a body of work to be done on that.
Returning to relationships, I appreciate the pressure felt by school principals. If they are receiving a capitation grant that does not even cover half the costs of running a school and are sweating about how they will pay the oil and lighting bills, it adds pressure and, unfortunately, that pressure spreads to all stakeholders, which is disappointing. This brings us full circle to who is providing the funding and the Minister or Government of the day.
The voluntary contribution has to cease immediately. It is not fair on those who are unable to pay. Human nature being what it is, there are those who could pay who will not pay, and that is not fair either. The system, no matter what way one looks at it, does not work and needs to be halted immediately.
Who we think of here is the child. Education, as we all know, can change everyone's life and it is depressing to think there are children who, purely for financial reasons, will not be able to achieve what they possibly could. That is something that we need to tackle immediately.
Mr. Farrell outlined that parents who find themselves in financial difficulties, be it with school costs or whatever, do not know that the credit union service is available, and maybe there is work to be done there. If a parent or anyone else coming to a credit union for financial assistance of a relatively small nature is in difficulty or if such a person's financial history is not all that it could be, does that close the door to him or her receiving assistance? Mr. Farrell might answer that question.
I was struck by what Ms McDermott said about lone parents. The task they face is even steeper. When compared with the so-called "normal family", they are on the back foot from the get-go. That must be addressed as well.
On the VAT on ebooks, the absence of VAT on books raises the question as to why there is VAT on ebooks. There are two parts to this issue, the first of which relates to the schools. I ask that perhaps they could look at what they could do to lower the cost. From the point of view of the Department, we certainly will do our part in the report we will compile. The witnesses are pushing an open door in respect of everyone on this committee. Politically, we may have our different views, but I will not go there today. As Senator Gavan will understand, I will leave that for another day.
Unfortunately, there is nobody here from the Government side to listen to this. That is not being political but at the same time, it is disappointing.
Our job is to put this forward. If it was left to ourselves, no doubt all that could be done would be done. All we can do is compile a report after the witnesses leave today. That will be done and we will make our recommendations. Ultimately, those recommendations will be made to Government and it will have the final say.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance here this morning. It has been worthwhile.
I thank Senator Gallagher. I will make a few comments myself.
The story the witnesses all painted is compelling and it is clear we cannot ignore the existing position on funding in the schools. I would also make the point that it is difficult on schools and they do not willingly put pressure on parents and children. Listening to Senator Ruane, I was moved by what would be perceived as nearly a form of intimidation or bullying within a classroom situation with a teacher. That is regrettable and it should not happen. In my experience, most schools and teachers are understanding. I can understand that it is difficult for a parent to approach a school, because of pride and shame, to say he or she is in a difficult situation but my understanding is that when parents make such an approach - I have been the teacher in such a situation - schools are understanding and will try to put another solution in place. As Mr. Mulconry stated, parents are paying €46 million to open the doors, turn on the lights and keep the water running and that is essentially a big gap that needs to be filled, and it should not be there.
It struck me too, when we were talking about stress in the home and parents cowering when the moneylenders come, that powerful research has been done in this regard because I had looked at it previously. Often we speak in this committee about improving mental health in education, about positive mental health for both children and the teachers and about promoting and developing resilience and confidence in early childhood when that is really important. The most important force shaping the development of resilience, however, turns out to be a surprising one and that is stress. Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity in research how severe stress in childhood - doctors sometimes call this toxic stress - leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop, and, significantly, the way they function in school. Children living in poverty experience such toxic stress more than others because they pick up on the stress within a home where their parents or parent, as the case may be, are financially strapped and desperately trying to find the money to ensure the child has a positive experience in school. The vast majority of parents want their children to have such a positive experience and not to be singled out. All must acknowledge, as members have here, that education is a critical enabler to move children and families from social exclusion and poverty, particularly in vulnerable situations such as my colleague, Deputy Catherine Martin, outlined in terms of children who are in direct provision and children who are homeless. We must do better.
In terms of the recurring themes from all the opening statements and from the members here, the key issues are to seek an increase in funding for the book rental scheme and to encourage and support its roll-out. As for workbooks, I worked with workbooks as a teacher but the children filled them in with pencil, they were all rubbed out and they were handed on to the next child. As I have stated here, I am the eldest of 11. In our family, that certainly was something that was done, when the schoolbooks did not change, to be handed on. We used pencil, not pen. The capitation grant is key. In respect of the many worthwhile recommendations the witnesses make, the capitation grant at least needs to be increased to 2010 levels. That is the first step that we need to take.
I note from surveys that transition year fees can cost up to €900 per child. Transition year, when it is done properly as there are gaps within it as well, is an important and formative experience for students. In many ways, it could be improved. Certainly, it is wrong to have parents paying up to €1,000 to ensure their children have a positive experience from transition year.
The pressure that parents and schools are under is wrong. Yesterday, we were looking at the challenges facing principals, in this instance, teaching principals. The primary purpose of principals is as leaders of education but when one considers all their other challenges, I note fundraising takes principals, teachers and the boards of management away from their core responsibility in a significant way. It is simply not good enough that schools still have to do this and that boards of management and parents' councils are putting their time into this. That undoubtedly will feature strongly in our report.
Some other practical measures have been recommended, for example, the reduction of 23% VAT on ebooks. It is ridiculous that there is no VAT on schoolbooks but 23% VAT on ebooks.
I was interested in what the Irish League of Credit Unions was talking about with regard to the personal microcredit scheme. I have raised this with the Taoiseach in the Chamber. Reading the statistics on what moneylenders charge, the shocking part is that there is a legal entitlement to moneylenders to charge 86% in many cases. I raised it in the Dáil Chamber and believe that should be capped. Portarlington was a pilot area for the personal microcredit scheme. I checked with them and they felt it worked well. The credit union in Naas and Newbridge has recently taken that on. That will be an incredible support, with whatever collaboration is needed between the credit union movement and Government to support that and encourage parents who have to go for loans. The Department certainly can and should help with the capitation grant etc. but there will always be extra costs so parents may always be, sadly, in the position of having to borrow some small amount, but let us make it as small as possible. They should be able to do it in a way in which they are not completely penalised or having to cower at home when the moneylender knocks on the door.
The core cost of running schools should be met. I know anecdotally of children who are asked to bring toilet rolls to school because schools cannot afford to have toilet roll. It is unfair on the school, the teachers, the children and the parents. I do not have any particular questions because everything that the witnesses have said is important.
A final comment relates to the children whom we are all fighting for, who are at the forefront of our minds today and yesterday, and who are starting back to school or who will be. These children are all vulnerable, some more than others, and they depend on the adults whom they know in their lives to try to help to make their lives easier and better in many cases. The adults whom they know are primarily their immediate family and people such as health workers, teachers and gardaí. They also depend on thousands of people to make their lives easier, people whom they will never know and never meet. They are the people who make decisions every day that impact on the well-being, opportunities and potential of the children. They are people who touch their lives directly and indirectly. Nowhere do they depend more on such adults whom they will never meet than in the education system. Those adults are within the school that they attend but it also includes all of the witnesses and us, both the witnesses fighting for those children and their opportunities, us as members of this committee and as legislators, and those who will put a report together and make recommendations to the Minister and the Department. It is up to us in this committee to do our best to make sure that every child has the best educational experience possible and to ensure that, as it were, money does not stand in their way. As Chair of this committee, that is my commitment to the witnesses and members of the committee.
I will go back to those who may wish to respond to or comment on both questions and comments that members have made. If there is a supplementary from members, I will take that.
Dr. Michael Redmond:
With regard to the experiences which Senator Ruane described, I think I speak for everybody in this room when I say that there is no place for shaming of a child in any school, whether faith school or State school - no school. Schools are sites of love or they are nothing, pure and simple. The former Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, is quite right when she describes the relationship with the school as a co-parenting relationship. I was principal for 15 years of two DEIS schools in Dublin, one in Finglas and one in Loughlinstown in Ballybrack. My experience, to relate to what the Chair said, is that the teachers, educators and parents in that school made intensive efforts to preserve the dignity of every single child and parent. We knew our families intimately. We went out to them. The home school community liaison project should be rolled out to every school in the country.
What the Chairman is pointing to relates directly to school culture, which is led by the school principal and the board of management. My experience of school leadership is that the principal is the most stressed person in the building. He or she is like someone at the neck of an hourglass and is carrying all of the responsibilities upwards from the board of management, to compliance with the Department of Education and Skills, to the local community. Below the principal is an entire school community and all the families who relate to that. We have a lone person at the neck of an hourglass who is meant to carry the entire cultural, financial, legal, employment and educational responsibility. That is an intolerable situation and we need additional deputy principals. There should be no such thing as a teaching principal in any school in the primary sector.
I can help a little with some of the issues members raised with regard to the publishing of accounts. In the post-primary sector, section 18 of the Education Act states that schools must publish, while not their full accounts, a précis of the accounts on the school website or share them with the parents' association. What is not required, though, is an account of how the voluntary contributions are spent. I note from the emerging discussions on the parent-school charter that that will be required and I have no doubt that schools would have no difficulty in sharing that information.
On anonymising parents' contributions, of course it is only the principal and maybe the school's financial person, generally the secretary, who will know who paid in. Parents are entitled to a receipt when they make a contribution and there has to be some acknowledgement of that. No teacher should know who paid what to whom under any circumstances, and that goes for school tours and some other situations where it can be held at a central leadership administration level in the school and no one needs to know who has paid what. Schools routinely buy uniforms for children. We buy books where no book rental scheme exists and we pay for school tours, all on a quiet, dignified, one-to-one basis. That has been happening for many years in schools of all traditions.
On the issue of books, the figures from the Department of Education and Skills told us in 2013 that it cost €234,000 in seed capital to set up a book rental scheme in a post-primary, non-DEIS school of 770 students. That is almost €250,000. The grant aid to that same school in any one year would be approximately €8,000. There is a huge deficit in seed capital. I did some research on this with our schools some years ago and asked them the impediments to setting up book rental schemes. Even though a majority of post-primary schools have them, some of the issues related to ebooks, in that they were moving to those. The VAT issue, which the Chair rightly pointed to, is a thorn in their side. There is the change in the curriculum, where, as the committee knows, the junior cycle has been reformed. The roll-out of new subjects prohibits schools from making investments in textbooks immediately. The lack of space in schools may seem like a small issue but, given the demographics in schools and the explosion in numbers, it is an issue. The bigger costs were the seed capital and staffing. One cannot rely and put more pressure on volunteer parents to run a book rental scheme which involves intensive amounts of administration.
We, therefore, make a plea to the committee to acknowledge in its report the real, grounded needs of schools in setting up and maintaining book rental schemes.
Finally, there have been two circulars in recent years instructing schools in the first instance to survey parents on their stance on school uniforms. By and large, schools have been doing this anyway, perhaps not in survey form, but certainly by consulting both parents' associations and student councils on school uniforms. Crests are a lightning rod for disaffection surrounding school uniforms. We have heard this from one speaker after another. Schools may be able to do more, but we should not be distracted from the fact that the systematic underfunding of our schools is the core problem. From relationship issues and the removal of any shaming that happens right through to unnecessary cresting and so on, there are issues that school management and its teachers can address, and we will promote this. A hundred circulars a year are sent to schools. Our schools must carry the policy change burden of 100 circulars a year. In this fraught landscape of policy overdrive, to be able to cope with all the spinning plates of running what is not only an educational organisation, but also a fiscal and a social one, the demands on school principals need to be taken into account as well.
Ms June Tinsley:
I thank members for an interesting discussion. I am happy to pick up on a number of points.
In connection with Senator Ruane's comments on the shaming of children, we in Barnardos have definitely come across such instances. Our experience has been that some schools have been progressive in trying to manage the costs - for example, by holding second-hand uniform sales, switching to generic brands and so on - while other schools have not. Likewise, this variation applies to the implementation of the circular; again, it is patchy. The Department said only recently that it truthfully was not monitoring the implementation of the circular, it had not awarded any schools the increased capitation and it was hoping to resolve the question even more through the forthcoming charter. However, these are all cost-neutral issues and, from Barnardos's point of view, as I keep saying, we believe that everything a child needs to complete the curriculum should be provided by the State. Uniform policy can be set at school level, and alternative, cheaper options should be adopted across the board. Parents like uniforms. They are handy for them, they ensure some school identity and so on. However, not every item needs to be crested, and there are alternatives.
Our schoolbook figures have been verified by the Department of Education and Skills and combine the findings not only of our survey, but also of book publishers. It is estimated that €20 million extra would provide free primary textbooks and workbooks to all pupils. An additional €20 million would cover the textbooks for secondary schools. There are models such as the one that works in Northern Ireland, whereby the schools receive a pot of money from the State, and the publishers know how much that pot contains and go into the schools to pitch for their business. It is a question of changing the customer. Here the publishers go into the schools, the schools choose which books best suit their needs and it is the parents who are the purchaser. It is a question of changing the dynamic of that exchange, essentially. Interestingly, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection in its consideration of school costs back in 2013 flagged a blueprint that would allow us to move to a system of genuinely free schoolbooks and less reliance on schoolbook rental schemes because they are so patchy. Where the latter operate comprehensively, they are great for parents, but they are not standardised, the fees vary significantly and some schools roll them out only for certain subjects or certain classes. It is, therefore, not a comprehensive model, and the system should be that schoolbooks are just provided by the State. It is interesting that we found a 1937 general election poster which promised free schoolbooks and we still do not have them. The investment can be made. It would be €20 million and it would genuinely assist in easing pressure on parents and ensuring a level playing field across the system.
I accept members' point about the additional vulnerability of children who are homeless and those in direct provision. They do not receive additional support, particularly children in direct provision. Some may be eligible for the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, but I am not 100% sure. Many of them link in directly with the principal and teachers in the schools the children are attending and try to gain additional assistance that way. I know that for children experiencing homelessness, the family resource centres - and sometimes, where they know the children are homeless, the schools themselves - will put in place initiatives to try to ensure that children can avail of homework clubs, for example, because if one lives in a hotel, it is obviously just not feasible to do one's homework, eat and so on in the same room in which one sleeps. It is just not conducive to good educational outcomes. Children experiencing homelessness also often have long commutes to the schools that they are originally from to instil stability in their otherwise chaotic lives. It is certainly an issue, and the recent Children's Rights Alliance, CRA, report on educational outcomes for children experiencing homelessness was clear in this regard about the negative impact it is having on children's lives.
Mr. Geoffrey Browne:
I will come back in on a number of points. I will not talk about school uniforms, as the matter has been addressed at this stage.
We have just finished running our helpline for students. Over eight days we received just short of 2,000 calls, with 4,000 or 5,000 various queries, and many of them fully accord with what Senator Ruane has described. These are real-life situations and difficulties that many families find themselves facing, not anomalies or rarities.
We regularly receive similar calls about, as it is described, the "voluntary" contribution. The word "voluntary" should not be used any more; it is almost compulsory. Even if a child's parents or guardians get an exemption from paying into this voluntary scheme, the child may not get a school locker. It is not a straightforward case of "Do not pay it and you will still get everything". We see many cases where children are carrying what I can only liken to suitcases full of books to and from school every day, and it is sad to see this going on in this day and age. If I were inclined to read a Mills & Boon novel, I could get it on my phone. Why can students not get their science books or French books on their mobile devices? Surely in the 21st century we can achieve that, and it would have a twofold benefit: it would reduce the weight of schoolbags for young people, and surely it could also be provided at a lower cost than that of printing these big manuscripts. I assume the books are in digital format for printing so I call on the Department and the various stakeholders to address this.
Many other costs that we have not had an opportunity to discuss are equally crippling for families in Ireland. I refer particularly to school transport costs and the cost of after-school childcare for parents. In most scenarios both parents or guardians must work to achieve a basic standard of living. I would also draw attention to the back-to-school allowances which families are entitled to apply for. However, last night I looked up the eligibility thresholds for these allowances and they are ridiculously low. People think of families in which both parents or guardians are working as well off or something. This is simply not the case. We often refer to them as the working poor, and these people are ineligible for such grants.
I will pick up on one last point. This was evident from the helpline that the National Parents Council has just run. It was geared towards senior-cycle students who had just received their results and potential CAO offers. We hear from many families that they are just not considering sending their children to universities or colleges in the likes of Dublin, etc., because they simply cannot afford to send their children to the major cities.
The threshold is similar to those for the back to school allowances and is far too low. Families are ineligible. There may be two parents or guardians on minimum wage with huge mortgage costs and costs of living yet they cannot apply for these third level grants. It affects all areas of society.
On the capitation grants, these should not just be reinstated to 2010 levels but incrementally increased yearly thereafter. Investment in education is the best investment we could ever make in this country and it should be followed up. Equally, and I say this without any examples here today, we need to make sure that this capitation grant money is being best spent and that value for money is being achieved by schools in how they spend the various income sources and the grants. If we can minimise the cost on parents then they can concentrate on what they should be doing which is funding extracurricular activities outside of school for their children.
Mr. Ed Farrell:
I have some more information on personal micro credit loans. It started as a pilot nearly three years ago when a group of stakeholders came together, including the Central Bank, the Department of Finance, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the credit unions, An Post, the Citizens Information Bureau, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and the St. Vincent de Paul. The Social Finance Foundation brought those people together to explore the idea of credit unions offering a convenient alternative to moneylenders and even out or level an unfair playing field. The objective was to take people out of the clutches of moneylenders, rehabilitate any financial mistakes they might have made in the past and try to get them into the credit union movement. Past history would not necessarily debar a person and each case is separate.
An easier credit policy was put in place for the pilot because the Central Bank was a part of the stakeholder group and also because, for the first two loans that came through, there was a deduction at source in the social welfare payment. That increased the likelihood of repayment of the loan and was a comfort to the credit union and to the regulator - any deduction at source, whether it is deposit interest retention tax, DIRT, or PAYE tax, is always easier to administer than the member having to come in afterwards. It is case by case and credit union by credit union. We have just under half of all credit unions in it. It is probably not as relevant for some of the industrial credit unions, those for teachers, nurses and guards, because their members are working people. We probably have half of the community credit unions but we certainly have much more than half of the geographic population of the country. We have the towns and cities well covered but some of the rural credit unions are not in the pilot, so although it is half of the credit unions much more than half of the population base is covered. We all have a job to communicate and advertise it better because not everyone hears about it. We also all have a job to get it into more credit unions. We have engaged with and helped some Members of both Houses to try to encourage their local credit unions, if they are not in it, to get them into it. We can all help each other get more credit unions and more people access to it.
The interest rates are frightening as Senator Ruane said. I refer to €150 being paid back on a €100 loan. That sounds like 50% to a person under pressure but because it is only for six months it is actually over 100% and because that person will be paying off his or her loan it is actually nearer 200%. There are moneylenders with a licence from the Central Bank allowed to charge almost 200% in interest as well as transactions and fees for calling around or late fees. That can add another 100% to the effective rate so that it will be nearly 300%. That is allowed and licensed. The credit union maximum rate is 12% per annum and that is in the law.
As part of the levelling of the playing field we will be seeking to allow credit unions the flexibility of perhaps charging double the 12% - it would still only be 24% - and trying to bring down the 200% and 300% rates on the other side to a more modest figure. That would even up some of the unfairness. The stakeholder group just got a report completed on an interest rate cap. The report found that 21 of the 28 EU countries have an interest rate cap on moneylenders, including big countries like Germany, France and Italy. Ireland is one of the seven that does not have any interest rate cap. It has been part of the policy of the Irish League of Credit Unions for 20 years to try to get a cap in law for licensed moneylenders. This report from the stakeholder group has been put together to help us get the interest rate on both sides a little more in balance.
Ms Mary McDermott:
One of the things I keep hearing is the way we are all adjusting in some way to the fact that there should not be a fully supported free education system. That means all of the things required for any child from zero to 18, or 22 if they are in full-time education, to have full support. A child-centred focus that puts them at the centre shifts our perspective. We have many perspectives. In the case of lone parents I could sit here until next week crushing everyone with statistics. We have harrowing descriptions of the poverty traps that lone parents in particular fall prey to. In the end the only sustainable solution is to perhaps simply implement the 2013 Oireachtas report as Ms Tinsley has said. The lists of all the issues sound like shopping lists and our conversation then starts to go between whether it is the responsibility of the principals, the teachers, the students or the parents. This is the State's responsibility, as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan said. There is no point in me talking on this because we all know that on some level. I want to make the point that in the case of lone parents some of the payments and supports available are completely inequitable compared to those available to couples and they really need attention.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
The Senator is passionate about this issue and I am passionate about it as well. Let me explain why. About a year ago I went to a DEIS school. It is in a very poor area and it had been a failing school. Reading and writing were on the floor. The principal went in there and with a dedicated team turned that failing school around. The uniform policy is set by St. Vincent de Paul. What they pay for becomes the uniform. That principal has a box beside her desk and it is full of tracksuits. When she sees a child whose tracksuit has become too frayed she hands him or her a new one. She does it quietly and respectfully.
I spent a morning with the reading and writing team out there. If the members want to see passion, they should go and talk to those people. They have a complete and total passion for the service and improvement of that school and their pupils and a deep respect. That has been my experience of the vast majority of teachers and principals. Teachers are the front-line workers in the fight against poverty. Every child that comes out of a primary school who can read and write has a change in life and every child who does not will probably end up in jail. As a State we pay more to keep a person in a high security prison for a year than we do on his or her entire education up to and including degree level.
The price of education in this country is not set by schools. That is like saying the price of milk is set by small farmers. It is set by the underinvestment of the State in our education system. The State is failing in its constitutional duty to provide free primary education.
The members, as legislators, have a duty to uphold the Constitution and to direct their passion not at school principals and teachers who are trying to do their best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but at the Ministers for Education and Skills and Finance who are failing to provide the needed resources.
Teachers are well aware of the pressures families are under. One must remember that because of our demographics, most teachers in the Irish primary school system have young children in education themselves. They see poverty every day. My wife is a teacher and I remember her coming home to me quite upset one evening. One of her pupils had arrived back to her classroom after being missing for a week. He had been missing because he had no shoes, not because he did not have the right colour shoes. He literally had no shoes and she told me she knew he was telling the truth. Teachers are dealing with that.
I am well aware Senator Ruane and others will have received complaints over the years about teachers who were insensitive or schools which put undue pressure on people. No one in the education system would stand over or ever condone that but what one does not hear about are the schools, the principals and the teachers who go the extra mile every day of the week and who often put their hand into their own pocket to see that children are not embarrassed or that they get to go on the school trip. They wring every ounce of funding they can from the Department of Education and Skills to try to provide a high quality education. This ultimately is about the quality of the education we provide to our children and primary school is the place where one learns the core skills that will see one through life. If we get that right at primary school, we are giving people a firm foundation for life. However if we get it wrong, the people will be a burden on the State for the rest of their lives and there will be another generation enduring poverty. I have never been so inspired in my life as when I sat down with that small group of teachers and they outlined to me their strategy to improve reading and learning. It is wonderful to see and that is typical of the vast majority of teachers. As an aside, the Leo Varadkar "sandwiches" are a massive improvement because that is what we had for lunch on that day.
Ms Áine Lynch:
We need to look at our history to see why we wanted to provide free education in the first place. I think when we were considering providing free education, both at primary and second levels, we did not think it would take the burden from schools or from parents. We decided to provide free education because we knew it would make society better. The fact that we have accepted that schools and parents prop up the system does not seem to acknowledge the fact that society benefits from an education system, not individual children and families. Obviously children and families benefit from it, as members of society. I think we need to go back and try to understand the principles of why the system of free education was set up in the first place.
Sometimes we need to look at some of the costs, not just as costs but in terms of the thinking on education. We talk a great deal about the cost of school books and workbooks. I have appeared before another Oireachtas committee that was discussing the weight of schoolbags. It is almost accepted that we need all the books to provide an education. We are talking about educating children for a world that we do not know yet. If we keep concentrating on the cost and weight of school books, we could be missing the whole point of education. We need to broaden our perspective when we are looking at the issues, notwithstanding that we need to reduce the burden on schools, parents and children.
On the issue of the surveys, we have not got the data as to whether the last circular was implemented, but we did a survey of parents when the first circular was implemented and we can forward the results of that to the committee secretariat.
Senator Ruane's comments illustrated some of the dynamic that I instanced when I said that parents are not going into the schools to discuss issues because they feel their relationship has already been damaged by the funding relationship they have. There is naming and shaming and unfortunately we all know of those instances. There are also parents who never go to the school and the secret stays at home. I acknowledge the fact that people say their schools know their families and that teachers say that if a parent comes to them, they will help but there are a great many families who do not fit into that and they will not talk to a teacher. They feel vulnerable, the power difference and all the other things that are going on that may mean they will not go in and discuss the issues. The children of these parents are not all in DEIS schools; they are sometimes in schools in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin. We need to ensure the system does not require people to declare their poverty to access education. I hope I have dealt with some of the questions.
I thank Ms Lynch. It is my belief that we have many underprivileged children in non-DEIS schools. Sometimes there is a belief that it is just the DEIS schools that need supports. There is a mix of children in practically every school. Just because a child is not in a DEIS school does not mean that he or she does not need to have the extra supports. Ms Lynch and Dr. Redmond highlighted the value of the home school liaison system, which is key in trying to figure out where a family is at in terms of what they cannot provide for their child to ensure he or she has a good experience in school and to see what it can do in conjunction with local organisations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
I will call Senator Ruane.
With no disrespect to Mr. Mulconry, all I heard from him was about teachers who are doing their job. I expect nothing less from my children's teachers than that they would have a passion to improve the writing and reading of their pupils. Is that not what they are taught to do? Is that not the vocation they chose? Of course, good teachers exist and I acknowledge their passion for the job, but when we talk about the failings of some teachers, some sectors do not want us to look at that but to focus on what is working. That is the problem. That is the narrative. It is the gaslighting of the issue. It is a case of putting the best foot forward.
Mr. Mulconry spoke about teachers being at the front line of poverty and said that they see the poverty. I am talking about the people who are "living" the poverty and not seeing it. Mr. Mulconry can go to a school and talk to passionate teachers but until he goes to a school and sits with the students and talks to them about their experience or goes into the homes of the people I am talking about and hears their experience, I do not want to hear only about the teachers' experience because they are not the only ones in the school. Everybody is sharing the space.
There are amazing teachers. I have two girls who have gone through the school system and they have had amazing teachers and school principals. Every time we talk about what is wrong, we cannot say, "Well, look at what is right; there are so many good things about school". Boards of management and the people who have a say should take on board what I am saying and say that the culture that exists in some schools needs to apply across the board. They need to acknowledge the stories that I have told instead of trying to bring in the positive points to drown them out.
We have had a balanced discussion in terms of those who are in absolute need. It is fair to bring in the perspective of the teachers and parents. People are doing their best but the Senator is right to point out that in some cases that does not happen. It is completely wrong when it does not.
I see that Senator Gavan is offering.
I reiterate the point Deputy Jan O'Sullivan made which was alluded to by a number of others as well because I think it is key. We can get caught up in the minutiae and say we need this and we need that but surely what we need, and Ms McDermott put it extremely well, is core support for the principle of truly free education. That has to be our starting point and Deputy O'Sullivan made that point very well. If we all can buy into that idea, that is the starting point. If we go below that, we are back into trading and bartering something that should be a core part of a Republic.
This has been a powerful engagement and I really appreciate everything the witnesses and members have brought to it. I look forward to having the opportunity to work on the report with the members.
We will certainly be in touch with all our witnesses to invite them to our presentation of that report. However, if there is extra information they would like to send to us following on from today's session I ask them to please do so. We will make sure that it is circulated to everybody. When we are finalising our report we will take those extra submissions on board as well. I thank the witnesses again for their time and their valuable contributions. This is the end of this session and it is also the end of our Joint Committee on Education and Skills summer school. I thank the members. I really appreciate them leaving their constituencies and coming to Leinster House to spend the two days on the three topics we chose. As there is no other business this meeting of the joint committee is adjourned until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 25 September.