Tuesday, 17 December 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Book Rental Scheme
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing a debate on this issue and I am glad to share time with our spokesperson, Deputy Charlie McConalogue. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, for coming into the Chamber to deal with it.
I hope he will look favourably on the issue we are raising. I welcome the launch of the guidelines for developing textbook rental schemes in schools and I know these guidelines provide practical advice to primary and post-primary schools in how to establish and operate a rental scheme. My main query is why a school with a limited or very basic book rental scheme would not qualify under this scheme.
The Minister has told us that 76% of primary schools operate a book rental scheme and many of these schools would like to have resources to expand but this process does not allow that to happen. We all know how expensive textbooks can be and that puts financial pressure on many families at the start of the school year. The Minister should do more than just commend schools that have already established a school book rental scheme, as there is talk of investing €15 million to support the scheme, with an initial €5 million per annum over three years. Some funding should be made available to schools seeking improvement in the scheme, as it would show recognition for the amount of work involved in a book rental scheme. Parents have been involved in establishing and upgrading the schemes, and there are guidelines for the involvement of parents.
Parents have indicated that they have saved up to 80% of the cost of buying new books by setting up a book rental scheme. If the Minister believes in the guidelines and the scheme, he should show flexibility in its operation. I support him in the priority given to literacy and numeracy but we do not even currently have new funding for the school library scheme, so book stocks are falling. I hope we will not make the same mistake with the school book rental scheme, as schools wish to make improvements. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will bring back that message to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and show some recognition for the schools which have, on their own initiative, set up a book rental scheme.
When this announcement was made in the budget it was very much welcomed by schools across the country which struggle on a yearly basis to keep book rental schemes alive in order to ensure that students and families have as low a cost as is possible in attending school. It was with shock that many of those schools learned that funding will only be provided to a quarter of all primary schools, specifically those schools which have not yet commenced a book rental scheme. This will exclude many schools which have fund-raised with families and made cuts in other parts of the school budget in order to try to get a school book rental scheme off the ground. Those excluded will number among them schools that only started such schemes last year or which may have only set up a book rental scheme for one class or subject. Only a quarter of schools will be able to benefit, although we welcome that those which need it will be able to benefit from the process.
The Minister cannot stand over a position where schools which have already started to make an effort and sacrificed, and which now need support in order to build momentum, are being totally excluded by the way the Government is going about using this funding. I ask the Minister of State to respond on the issue. The Minister must consider how to support the schools which have made the effort. It is not enough to congratulate those schools for starting the process and the Government must support them in continuing their work rather than punishing them for taking the initiative.
I am taking this Topical Issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn. I thank Deputies Kitt and McConalogue for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to clarify the position. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, is very conscious that the cost of textbooks is a considerable burden on families. Textbooks are a very important way in which students can be supported in their learning and the Minister believes that participation in book rental schemes offers the best opportunity to reduce the burden. Schools which already have rental schemes can save parents up to 80% of the cost of buying new books.
Since his appointment, the Minister has attempted to take steps to increase participation in book rental schemes. In January 2013, the Minister launched the guidelines for developing textbook rental schemes in schools, which provide practical advice to primary and post-primary schools on how rental schemes can be established and operated. The aim of the guidelines is to help as many schools as possible to start such book rental programmes. The publication of the guidelines followed a survey of schools by the Department last year. This had a 99% response rate at primary level and indicated that 76% of primary schools operate a book rental scheme. At second level, the response rate was lower, at 44%. Of those which did respond, 88% of those in the VEC sector and 73% of those in the community and comprehensive sector operated a book rental scheme.
The Minister believes these results indicate we have a good foundation to build on across the country, especially at primary level. We can achieve a position where every primary school has a book rental schemes in operation in the 2014 and 2015 school year. The 2014 budget provided additional funding which will involve an investment of €15 million to support the establishment of book rental schemes in primary schools that do not currently operate them. The Department will provide €5 million in seed capital per annum over a three-year period to such schools.
This seed capital grant for book rental scheme for the primary schools scheme will be confined to primary schools that do not currently operate such a scheme. To extend it to all schools, as suggested by the Deputies, would mean that funding available to each school would be diluted to such an extent as to have little impact. The Minister wholeheartedly commends schools that have established book rental schemes to date. However, he regrets that they will not be eligible to apply for funding under this scheme. The Minister has confirmed that the Department will continue to provide €7 million in book grants to all primary schools, and this can be utilised for the purposes of updating or expanding a school's book rental scheme. The publication of the guidelines builds on other steps the Minister has taken in an attempt to reduce the burden on families, such as agreeing the voluntary code of practice with the Irish Educational Publishers Association, protecting the budget for school book grants at €15 million over the past two years, despite economic pressures.
I am disappointed that the Department will not allow for the 76% of schools at primary level to get some benefit from the scheme. There should be recognition for the work they have done. At second level, books are more expensive, and the students attending second level need assistance which should come from a school. To be fair to schools, they want to provide that assistance but unfortunately, if they want to improve or update a scheme, there is no help available.
With regard to the school library scheme, there is a very worthwhile initiative taken in some counties where up to 15 or 20 copies of one book can be made available through the scheme. There can be a discussion after reading a book - a type of junior book club - and such a process should be promoted. I hope the Minister of State will bring the message to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, that there are very dissatisfied parents, boards of management and school authorities. They want to use this scheme and with a little flexibility, there could be something for the schools that already have a rental process in place. These schools want to update and improve their scheme but the funding will currently only reach a quarter of schools. That is particularly disappointing for those at primary level.
Unfortunately, the response has been very disappointing. The Government is giving no recognition whatever to the many schools which have made a Trojan effort to get book rental schemes off the ground in the past few years. As I indicated, some schools may only have a scheme running for only one subject or year, and they will be excluded from this funding. The schools which have not yet started will be given seed capital and in many ways they will find it much easier to get a full scheme up and running. The schools which have already made an effort will be left out. That is not fair.
This is not the type of solution we heard of on budget day and which is regularly mentioned by the Minister. Unfortunately, in the past two or three years, the cost for a family of going to school has been increased under this Government. This scheme is advocated as a way for the Government to address that cost but the reality is that only a quarter of schools will benefit.
In fairness to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, he was able to secure €15 million for the scheme during a serious economic crisis in this country. Deputies must accept that he was trying to give an opportunity to schools that did not have a book rental scheme. As I outlined in my reply on behalf of the Minister, 80% of families appreciate such schemes in schools. At the Minister's request, departmental officials have spoken to the Irish Educational Publishers' Association in order to assist families. I accept that families find it difficult at present, but the Minister must be complimented on the measures he has taken to date. He also provided a grant of €7 million to schools, which they can use to update or expand existing schemes. When the economy improves the Minister will be able to assist schools that have already set up the programme. To be fair, he is trying to target the schools that have no programme and to assist them in getting one up and running.
We are all agreed it is a good scheme and that was borne out by the survey results. When the economy improves and more funding is available for education the Minister will be able to look at ways and means to provide further funding for the scheme. I compliment him on finding the money for the scheme for this year in difficult circumstances. Some months ago there was talk about cuts to the education budget and in every other Department. The Minister for Education and Skills had to make cuts, but to be fair to him, he found €15 million to help schools that did not have an existing scheme. When the economic situation improves he might be in a position to do something for schools that have existing schemes.