Wednesday, 13 July 2011
The cost of school books has been a sore issue for parents and students for generations. In today's harsh economic climate the high costs have never been more relevant. School book publishers have always defended their prices, quoting the high development costs of a new book and the high printing costs to name but two factors. Educate.ie, a subsidiary of Walsh Colour Print, entered the publishing market last year and took 70% off the cost of books of past examination papers. A total of 420 schools purchased books of examination papers from educate.ie. Straight away, Smurfit Edco and Folens were able to reduce the prices of their past examination papers by up to 30%. They did not reduce their textbook prices because there is no real competition in the marketplace. The Minister met with the publishers and they refused to lower the cost of text books. Did he ask them why they were able to reduce the cost of past examination papers when they had to compete with educate.ie? Is the Minister aware that the publishers have plans to reduce the cost of their examination papers even further again this year to force educate.ie out of the market? I urge him to ask the Competition Authority to investigate the action of Smurfit Edco and Folens in this regard.
Educate.ie has just published five new textbooks. Their books are now on book lists across the country. Even the highly prestigious Blackrock College has one of its books on the school's book list. A total of ten new titles will be added every year until the syllabus is covered. The entire syllabus will be covered over the life of this Dáil. All of the textbooks will cost €12 or less. I question why the Minister is talking to publishers that have ripped off the Irish public for generations but he will not talk to educate.ie. He refused to meet the company at the TUI conference in Tralee and he refused to meet them last month in Dublin.
Is the Minister aware that educate.ie textbooks would be cheaper than second-hand books in the proposed book rental scheme and that the State would have to pump in excess of €50 million into any meaningful book rental scheme? Why does the Minister not work with educate.ie or other such companies to save the country millions? If that were to happen pupils would be able to afford their own new books and not have to make do with ragged hand-me-downs.
Is the Minister aware that publishers add more than 1,000% onto the cost of printing a school book? Most of the printing work goes abroad. Is he also aware that publishers are one of the parties that have run the Irish printing industry into the ground? Is he further aware that €100,000 was spent on the development of educate.ie's new biology book which only costs €12 compared to €36 for a textbook by established publishers? Surely meaningful competition is the only long-term answer not pumping millions into a book rental scheme.
I previously raised the issue in April. I thank Mr. Ferghal Blaney who rightly reported the matter on the front page of the Irish Daily Mail.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, the Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter and providing an opportunity to outline the position with regard to the cost of school books.
I am aware of the concern expressed by many parents and organisations, including the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, about the high cost of school books and the frequent rate of revisions by book publishers. In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Minister stated his intention to meet with book publishers and representatives of parents to discuss this important issue in greater detail. The Minister met with representatives of parents, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Irish Educational Publishers' Association on 22 June. All members of the Irish Educational Publishers' Association, including educate.ie, were invited to send a representative to the meeting with the Minister; however, no representative from that company expressed an interest in attending. The meetings provided an opportunity to obtain the views of these groups. At the meeting with publishers, the Minister urged them to minimise the number of changes in textbooks, to avoid the publication of new editions where only minor changes were involved and to consider closely the cost of the books they supply to the market. The publishers have agreed to reflect on the concerns raised by the Minister and he is currently awaiting a formal response from them.
The Minister is currently examining how best to encourage schools to establish book rental schemes, and has asked the National Parents' Council to provide him with examples of good practice they have encountered in this regard, which he intends to circulate to schools. The Department of Education and Skills has provided grants of €15 million this year to first- and second-level schools towards the cost of school books. Primary schools received a per capita grant of €11, or €21 in the case of pupils enrolled in DEIS schools, while second-level schools received a grant of €24 per pupil, or €39 in the respect of pupils enrolled in DEIS schools. Apart from a small number of prescribed texts at second-level, mainly in the case of language subjects, decisions on textbooks are taken at school level, so it may be necessary to encourage individual schools to take a more cost-conscious approach to the selection of books in their classes.
I sympathise with parents who are experiencing difficulty in paying for school books. The harsh economic reality means money is tight for many parents. It is for precisely for that reason the Minister will continue to encourage schools to establish book rental schemes as the most effective means of lowering the cost of books for all students. Many schools are already using the funding for books provided by the Department to operate successful rental schemes. I thank Deputy Healy-Rae for affording me the opportunity to respond on this matter.