Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Education (Voluntary Contributions) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


3:40 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

In the first instance, I extend an apology to the Minister from Deputy Carthy, my co-sponsor of the Bill. He is at Dublin Airport to provide a lift for a family coming back from Ukraine. That is a fairly legitimate excuse. He asked me to give his apologies. I asked him if he wanted me to make any particular points, for example, on County Monaghan. He specifically asked me to say, "This is the year." The Minister can make of that what she will.

The legislation before the Minister is reasonable and thought-out and offers us a staged removal of voluntary contributions. To put the Bill in the current context, we have a cost-of-living crisis across the State. Ordinary families are doing all they can to keep up with sky-high bills and runaway price increases. It is the main issue people are talking about every day, be it fuel, housing, rent or childcare.

Education is another area of cost, be it for books, voluntary contributions, uniforms and everything else. Voluntary contributions are a significant element of the cost of education. They could be €100, €200 or €300. In reality, they are often anything but voluntary.

Ní mhaith le tromlach na scoileanna gur ghá dóibh iarraidh ar thuismitheoirí na deontais seo a chur ar fáil ach cuireann roinnt de na scoileanna brú millteanach ar thuismitheoirí. Tá na litreacha ag teacht de shíor agus bíonn ócáidí, is oth liom a rá, go mbíonn na scoileanna ag rá leis na leanaí agus leis na tuismitheoirí nach mbeidh lockers, dialainne, imeachtaí spóirt agus ealaíona agus an saghas sin rud ar fáil. Níl sé sin maith go leor ar chor ar bith.

People are crucified with the extortionate costs of housing, childcare, energy and fuel, groceries and insurance. They are being hammered by a cost-of-living crisis, where every cost is going up and nothing is coming down. With these increased living costs, families of school-age children will be looking ahead and starting to wonder how they will meet the costs of the return to school this summer. We must begin to plan how to address that now because it is a significant cost. It could be well over €1,000. We know that in this State, there is talk about the concept of free education but it is a myth. In reality, the hidden costs and fees that are associated with sending kids back to each year place a crippling financial burden on parents.

A survey from the Irish League of Credit Unions, ILCU, last summer painted a stark picture of the pressure of back-to-school costs on a family's finances. Two thirds of parents surveyed said they found the costs a significant financial burden, with just under a quarter of families in debt over the return to school, and 21% of families having debts of more than €500. I have heard of parents going to illegal moneylenders, and I am sure the Minister has also heard such stories, and the pressure that puts them under.

Our education system is being heavily subsidised by families. Many parents are forced into debt in order to give their child equal access to an education, through meeting the cost of uniforms, books and transport. Among these costs, one of the most significant is the voluntary contribution. Families can be asked to pay €200, €300 or even €400 per child. The total amount can add up to a significant amount. These contributions add significant pressure on families, as schools mainly seek the payment in September, which on top of all of the other expenses, can tip many families to breaking point. Tagann na costais seo i ndiaidh do go leor teaghlaigh cuid mhaith airgid a chaitheamh ar na cultacha scoile, ar na málaí scoile, ar na leabhair, ar theicneolaíocht agus ar gach rud a théann le dul ar ais ar scoil. Cosnaíonn sé breis is €1,000 ar chuid mhaith teaghlach.

There was no significant measure to increase capitation for primary and secondary schools in the previous budget. There was a marginal increase for a very small category of schools, and welcome and all as that was, the vast majority of schools saw no increase in capitation. The Minister may point to additional Covid funding in the past two years as an increase in capitation overall, but this was ultimately to meet essential costs for personal protective equipment, PPE, additional space, and high-efficiency particulate absorbing, HEPA, filtration. That was welcome but it does not address the fact that the Department does not provide enough money to run schools. We have an almost Victorian situation whereby schools must turn to parents and ask them to fundraise and ask them for voluntary contributions, in effect, donations, albeit that they are not entirely voluntary, just to keep the lights and the heating on.

Voluntary contributions, despite the name, are often not voluntary at all. In reality, the vast majority of schools do not want to be in this situation but there are schools that chase up parents who cannot or do not pay. This causes serious anxiety and stress for families to cough up sums that they do not have. Last summer, we asked families to get in contact with us and tell us their stories and experiences with back-to-school costs and voluntary contributions.

Many of the families we heard from felt that they had been disengaged from their children’s schools and were embarrassed about not being able to cover the costs of these contributions. Others said they would avoid going into the school grounds to pick up their children in case they saw a staff member and were asked about their voluntary contribution that had not been paid. That is putting shame and embarrassment on families and children that is completely unjustifiable.

We know that reminders of non-payment are often sent through students and parents fear their child will be stigmatised in front of their classmates or will be denied access to lockers or extracurricular activities. One family who were in contact with us said their child had come home from school very upset because they had been singled out from their classmates and not given a school journal because the parents were not in a position to pay the full contribution. This family had a weekend of stress and panic trying to pull together their funds so that their child would have the diary when they went back in and would not continue to be singled out. It is not just about the diary; the child obviously wanted the diary. It is about being singled out and the shame and embarrassment foisted on this child and the family. It is a shocking situation to put a family in, but we know exactly why this is happening and why schools are chasing up these voluntary contributions.

For many schools, their backs are against the wall because continued underfunding and Government cuts have left them fundraising just to cover basic things such as keeping the heating and the lights on. Since 2008, the capitation grant has been slashed by successive Governments meaning schools believe they have no choice but to place the burden onto parents to make up the shortfall through these voluntary contributions. As already stated, we could point to the Covid funding but it does not make up the shortfall that has been there for a long time. The additional Covid funding covered only the baseline of what was needed to address additional Covid-related costs. It was not a magic wand to reverse the large-scale funding issues schools have been facing for nearly 15 years, nor is it a sticking plaster for repeated cuts to capitation, as the Minister has tried to suggest, and it will not bring an end to extortionate voluntary contributions. Parents are still having to fundraise to keep the lights on in their children’s schools. A Barnardos survey last year reported that 61% of parents of primary school children and 57% of parents of secondary school children are paying classroom resource fees for photocopying, stationery and art supplies. This again comes down to the underfunding of our school system, which is not funded well enough to run. That is just a simple fact.

It should not have to be this way. This Bill would bring an end to the pressure on families to bear the financial brunt of the underfunding of successive Governments. It will place an obligation on schools to make clear to families that these contributions are in fact voluntary. It will ensure that no child is stigmatised or denied access to lockers or extracurricular activities because their parents are not in a position to make a contribution. It would make it unlawful, which it should be, for schools to treat children any differently because of the situation their parents are in. If anything, the Minister's proposal to delay this by nine months surely means, on that basis alone, we should proceed with this straight away. It should be the case, right now, that no child should be treated differently because a parent or family cannot afford contributions. This Bill would prohibit schools from contacting parents more than once per school year looking for contributions and will bring an end to the stigma and shame by preventing reminders of these contributions being sent home with their children.

Dhéanfadh sé cinnte de go mbeadh soiléireacht ann. Chuirfeadh sé dualgas ar scoileanna agus ar an Roinn an méid atá bailithe sna deontais agus cé mhéad a chaitear i ngach scoil gach bliain a fhoilsiú. D'fhéadfaí sin a dhéanamh gan aimniú a dhéanamh ionas nach mbeadh aon duine ná leanbh tar éis a bheith ainmnithe agus ní bhféadfaí a dhéanamh amach cé hiad. Tá seo fíorthábhachtach agus cuireann sé bóthar romhainn conas gur féidir deireadh a chur leis na deontais seo.

The Bill would ensure transparency by placing an obligation on schools and the Department to publish online the total amount collected in contributions each year, and how this has been spent in each school, in a completely anonymous way so that no one family or child can be identified. Crucially, the Bill sets out a pathway for bringing an end to voluntary contributions for good once capitation levels have been adequately restored by the Government. That is a key point. I do not want to hear from the Minister that voluntary contributions are needed and this Bill is a problem because schools will be left short and will be underfunded. We anticipate that. We know that we need to fill the funding gap first. This Bill is about figuring out what the funding gap is because the Minister does not know. Nobody knows. Some organisations have estimated that it could be in excess of €100 million, but the Minister does not know what the gap is and we need to find that out. This Bill provides for the Minister to request a report from the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to evaluate how effective Government funding alone is in meeting all reasonable operating costs. It paves the way for abolishing voluntary contributions once and for all, once Government funding is found to be sufficient to meet all of a school’s costs.

Last summer, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul reported experiencing a significant increase in calls from parents who were worried and anxious about meeting back-to-school costs that were up 10% on the year before. In the context of this cost-of-living crisis, I dread to think of the number of calls that charity will be getting this year. It will be far more dramatic than previous years; it is already far in excess of those levels. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Irish League of Credit Unions and Bernardos will all highlight the pressure that families come under. If this Bill and other measures to tackle return-to-school costs are not supported and taken seriously by the Government, then it will be ever more severe.

It is very disappointing to again see the same approach. It is always the case, and just seems to be the mechanism the Government has decided it needs to employ in every instance, that it will delay this by nine months, or it might come back to it, or there might be a report or something like that. Nine months down the line, children will have returned to school. Children will be back in school for the next school year and the Government will put things off until the following year, and probably the year after that again, before we give these parents and families some respite and address the funding imbalance in our schools.

Despite the constitutional protections of the right to education, as well as the notion of Ireland having a free education system, the reality is that many children do not have equal educational opportunities due to a lack of resources. Níl sé fíor go bhfuil oideachas saor in aisce do scoláirí agus do theaghlaigh sa Stát seo ar chor ar bith nuair a fhéachtar ar na costais atá ann i ngach uile slí. This is through no fault of their own or of their parents, many of whom must ignore their personal needs to provide for their children. We need to secure a level playing field for all children and young people by ensuring adequate funding in areas when it is needed most. That necessarily means properly funding our schools so they are not forced to rely on parents to make up this shortfall. My colleagues and I in Sinn Féin will continue to listen to families, to take on board their concerns, and to deliver real change for ordinary people. This Bill would make things fairer for parents, families, children and schools. It is a simple Bill but it is one step towards ensuring that free education is more than just lip service and that equal opportunities can be secured for all children and young people on this island.

I appeal to the Minister yet again. The root factor here is very obvious and very simple; schools do not have enough money to run and they turn to parents. They ask parents who are already hard-pressed and broke from the summer months due to buying uniforms, books and whatever else goes with it, which can cost hundreds of euro. We need to address that too. As parents go into September, they are down €1,000, or €1,500 if they have a few children, and they then get a letter from their school through the door asking them for €250 or €300 because that school does not have enough money to keep the lights or heating on. That is the simple reality. If the Minister is serious about ensuring that we have a proper system of free education, she should support this Bill and do everything she can to ensure this so-called voluntary contributions regime is brought to an end by funding schools properly and then putting a ban in place so they cannot continue to be such a burden on parents. I ask her to reconsider her position and, certainly in nine months' time, to take this Bill more seriously and try to ensure it and the objectives in it can be supported.

3:50 pm

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following: "Dáil Eireann resolves that the Education (Voluntary Contributions) Bill 2021 be deemed to be read a second time this day nine months to allow for the progression of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 and for that then to be taken into account in the consideration of this Bill.".

Táim fíorbhuíoch as an deis mo thuairimí ó thaobh an Bhille a chur os comhair na Dála. I share the Deputy’s desire for greater clarity and transparency for parents and guardians around voluntary contributions and I am supportive of measures which will support and enhance that. While very many schools already provide great clarity to parents and the broader school community around how financial contributions and resources are used within the school, I recognise that further work is needed to ensure that this becomes uniform across the board.

I am particularly conscious of the need for this clarity, given the financial pressures which many families find themselves under at present. However it is my strong view that Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 is the correct approach to achieve this goal. The programme for Government contains a commitment to enact the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019. The charter Bill has already been passed by the Seanad and completed Second Stage in the Dáil and now awaits progress to Committee Stage. It is well under way in the legislative process and has received support from many Members of the House and within the broader education sphere in its overall aims and objectives.

The overall aim of the charter Bill is to improve the level of engagement between the school community by inviting feedback, comment and observation from students and parents and by further developing a listening culture in schools. One of the key concepts of the Bill is the need for a school to consult students and their parents on individual school plans, policies and activities. The charter guidelines will set out the form and manner in which information is to be provided to students and parents, which may include publishing information on the school's own website about voluntary contributions and how they are spent. This Bill seeks to require the school to state clearly that any contribution made by parents and guardians toward the operating costs of the school is voluntary and that there is no obligation on parents and guardians to make such a contribution. This is backed up in previous legislation, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, which already contains a provision prohibiting the charging of admission and enrolment fees for admission to or for continued enrolment in a school. This Private Members' Bill also proposes that the Department of Education publish details of the total moneys collected annually by schools, as well as details of the expenditure of those moneys.

The charter Bill requires schools to prepare, publish and implement a charter in accordance with national guidelines which will be published by me, as Minister for Education, after consultation with unions, management bodies, parents and student representatives. The charter guidelines will set out the financial information that schools must provide to students and their parents. The information provided to students and parents must include information about how the school has spent moneys that it has received, including any funding obtained through fundraising and voluntary contributions. In the charter Bill, I am putting in place an obligation on schools to be transparent in relation to voluntary contributions and to provide key information to parents on the moneys raised and how they have been spent. I am doing this in a structured and clear way as part of a school’s obligations under its own charter. Publishing data that allow for comparison of schools based on moneys raised and spent in a given year without any consideration of context could be misleading for parents and unfair to the schools concerned. For example, such comparisons would not reflect the difference between a school that consistently seeks high levels of contributions and a school that in a given year or for a short period is raising funds for a particular project or facility but typically does not seek or raise significant amounts from parents. I believe the approach taken in the charter Bill in this regard is clear, fair and balanced and will not be unduly burdensome for schools.

On the broader context of the funding of our schools, as raised by the Deputy, I know that our schools and our education system can only prosper with the right supports and the right investment. We are fortunate in Ireland to have teaching and school staff of an extremely high quality and to enjoy the support and commitment of many volunteers from board of management members to parent representatives to local community members. This must be accompanied and reinforced by strong State investment in schools and their communities. That is why I have, as Minister for Education, prioritised successive funding increases for our schools through the last two budgets. For example, yesterday I announced a €32 million investment in the DEIS programme, which provides targeted and tailored supports for students at greatest risk of educational disadvantage. This is the single most significant investment in the DEIS programme since its inception and will benefit 347 schools across the primary and post-primary sector. It will mean that nearly 25% of Irish pupils are enrolled in a DEIS school and will bring the total number of DEIS schools in Ireland to 1,194. We know that the DEIS programme works and that it has helped to dramatically increase Ireland’s school completion rate and to narrow the attainment gap between schools. The supports provided to schools vary by school type and DEIS tier, but the supports offered under the DEIS programme can include a lower pupil-teacher ratio in DEIS urban band 1 schools, separate DEIS grant funding, access to professional support services, enhanced schoolbook grant rates and access to the home school liaison and school completion programmes. We make this investment because there is no greater leveller than education. I know that the Deputies here appreciate that. We know that being supported through school is associated with positive outcomes for a person throughout their life, be it accessing further work and study opportunities or their broader well-being, which is equally important.

I know that the Covid-19 pandemic has presented considerable challenges for the education sector. I remain deeply appreciative of the leadership, dedication and courage that was shown by so many people throughout the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2022, inclusive, €860 million has been allocated for Covid-related supports and capital funding. Throughout the pandemic, this has supported an array of measures from additional staffing allocations to Covid grant payments to purchase PPE and hand sanitiser, to provide enhanced cleaning and to carry out Covid-19 related building works, such as reconfiguration works. Thankfully, while we remain vigilant in respect of the pandemic, we continue to see its effects on our children and broader society decrease.

On the more general funding streams for our schools, capitation grant funding is paid to schools to meet their day-to-day current costs such as insurance, lighting and heating. This is separate to minor works funding, which is capital funding intended to support maintenance and minor upgrade work within schools. A standard rate of capitation is paid in respect of each mainstream pupil at primary and post-primary level, with enhanced rates of capitation provided for pupils enrolled in special classes and special schools and pupils from a Traveller background. At second level, additional funding is provided to support individual programmes within the school, including the transition year grant and the leaving certificate applied programme, and to schools providing Irish-medium education. That said, I understand the need for improved capitation funding. In recent years, there has been a 7.5% increase in such funding and I intend to seek further funding increases in future budgets. All schools have received the benefit of the capitation increases awarded to date.

Finally, I am deeply conscious of the need to minimise the cost of school attendance for all families, parents and guardians. As a Government, we have a number of measures in place to help to do this, from the back-to-school grant, which last year supported over 200,000 children, to the school book grant, which this year provided over €17 million to schools to support book rental schemes for their pupils. Approximately 96% of primary schools and 69% of post-primary schools operate book rental schemes.

Just last month, the Government announced further measures aimed at mitigating the rising cost of living, including a reduction in the maximum amount payable for families to access the school transport scheme, an increase in the threshold for the working family payment and a €200 energy credit for households.

It is my strong view that the particular policy objective of this Bill will be achieved, but it will be achieved by the enactment of the charter Bill. Rather than opposing the Bill, the amendment I am seeking to move allows time for the progression of the charter Bill that will achieve the objectives set out in this Bill of improving information and transparency for parents and guardians around the collection and use of voluntary contributions by their schools, while avoiding any unintended consequences and not placing any unnecessary burden on our schools in this respect.

4:10 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I find these debates depressing. There is an absolute poverty of ambition or vision in the Minister's speech and from her Department with respect to any real belief in what our education system could be like.

In Finland 50 years ago they had an educational revolution. We have been through two crises in the last ten years. One was an economic collapse and we are at present coming out of a health emergency, yet there has been no real attempt by the Department or the Minister leading it to have a vision of a wholly different education system. What the Finns did, if the Minister were to study it, was put equality at the heart of the education system. Everything that was received and handed down was torn up and they started again. What is absolutely illegal now in Finland is fundraising or fee-paying schools because they said equality should be at the heart of the education system. The problem is that far too many of the conversations happening in school communities, between schools, between parents or between parents and their children are about money. They are about money.

There is a poverty of ambition and vision within the Minister's Department. Earlier we had a conversation about schoolbooks. One only has to look 100 miles up the road. Anybody in the North would consider it bizarre that people would have to put their hands in their pockets to buy schoolbooks for their child so they could go to school. This is the type of mentality we need in this Republic, namely, that it is bizarre that people have to put their hands in their pockets to buy schoolbooks for their child - because the Republic should provide that. However, there is a poverty of ambition and of vision. School parents' association are just fundraising bodies. They just organise fundraisers. They do not talk about education. They do not talk about child development. They do not talk about all the fantastic, wonderful, experiences children should be having in the school environment. They do not talk about any of that stuff. They just talk about money and how to raise it. It is pathetic. It is pathetic that one would have to have a fundraiser for a school.

As for the idea of voluntary contributions, it has been pointed out they are not voluntary. They are voluntary in name. How crushing must it feel for a parent that a notice comes down from the school in their child's fist and know this a barrier between the child and his or her full involvement in school life, because if one cannot come up with the goods, if one cannot come up with the money, one is less likely to fully engage in school life. One is less likely to go to the school gate. One is less likely to go to the parent-teacher meeting, the football match or the school play, lest one comes into contact with a school staff member who feels he or she must ask one because the money is needed to run the school. Money, money, money, money, money - the conversation always comes down to money. It is not just the fact you feel humiliated by that, it is also about the replacement conversation people are not having. People are not talking about, as I mentioned, child development. People are not talking about advances in educational thought. People are not talking about how their child might be struggling in school. People are not talking about potential bullying incidents in school, about subjects or about innovative initiatives in learning. People are not talking about any of that stuff. It is money, money, money, money, money.

Here is a vision for the Minister we could all work on together. The Government threw away €500 million on tax cuts in its last budget and it comes back to those choices. If the Minister took €100 million, which is one fifth of that, she could make every schoolbook in this State free for every child at primary and secondary level and €45 million would replace the amount of money taken in in voluntary contributions, according to the Catholic Primary School Management Association. Imagine the freedom a school principal would have. Imagine the time that would be saved by a school principal, who is supposed to be a learning leader. Rather than chasing after parents for money, organising fundraisers, turning off lights and worrying about heating bills, the principal could think and talk about the delivery and leading of learning. Imagine that. This is what I am challenging the Minister and her Department to do. They should think differently, just as was done in Finland 50 years ago, and dispense with all this tinkering around the edges. This is what is so depressing about these debates. It is so much tinkering around the edges.

We have come to the conclusion that a parent should expect to have to go to a fundraiser for his or her child's school. Is there not something utterly pathetic about that? However, we are just so used to it we accept it. The Minister would get broad support from across these Houses if she were to institute budgetary measures and the legislative underpinning to rule out certain things. Why do we not ban voluntary contributions rather than only making it more clear what they pay for? We should ban them. Alternatively, the Minister could take the view we could look towards what happened in Finland and say that over a period of time we could have a fully-funded education system that does not come down to conversations about money.

We could take the template from the Six Counties, where nobody puts their hand in their pocket for a book. We had to ask the Minister to get rid of the fee for the leaving certificate earlier this year. Again, those from the North who are living here think it bizarre one would have to pay money to sit a State exam. We accept all these things as being the norm, we tinker around the edges and have debates in this House, all while the Minister has such a capacity to drive forward a revolutionary change in the way education is run and in how schools are run. However, there is a poverty of mindset within the Department and people there who really do not think it is their problem. They do not think it is down to them. One has all the power with the individual patron bodies, the board of managements will do what they can do and then if a school must have a fundraiser then that is the way it goes. Inevitably, there is a deep inequality in that because as the Minister knows, in affluent areas people can raise an awful lot more than can those in areas of disadvantage. The Minister knows that. However, as long as she allows that to continue there is going to be a fundamental inequality in how schools can run themselves. I know this because, as Deputies across the House will be aware, we are in a post-Covid era and so the fundraisers have started again. Teachtaí Dála are getting requests to take out ads in various different fundraising booklets because are they beginning to ask their Teachtaí to come to fundraisers. Is it not absolutely pathetic that part of a Teachta Dála's job is to give money to a school fundraiser?

Why do we not completely recast our brains and come to the bizarre conclusion that maybe the State should just fund the schools, pay the bills and not have this constant, money-oriented, transactional conversation between school communities, parents and children? I know what it is like to chase a mother for the book-rental money. It is humiliating for the school and the parent. With the best of good will and from a genuine place, I challenge the Minister to go back to the Department and say maybe it is absolutely pathetic that in a republic there are such things as school fundraisers, voluntary contributions and that we ask parents to pay for schoolbooks. She should suggest we front-load the funding to our schools so all these transactional, financial conversations are replaced by conversations about education. Imagine that as a revolutionary thought. The Finns did it and it is the day-to-day reality in the North.

Rather than tinkering around the edges, let us have a genuine conversation about the State having a day-to-day, genuine funding role in the running of our schools and let us rule out certain elements of school community life, for example, being expected to raise money or contribute voluntarily to the running of a school and having to pay for a schoolbook. It is fundamentally pathetic. Until educational leaders such as the Minister and those in her Department get that into their heads, we will just be tinkering around the edges.

4:20 pm

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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With all due respect to the Deputy, who does not have the courtesy to wait to hear my response, in my experience, righteous indignation and rhetoric are no replacement for action and delivery. He has referred to a lack of investment in education, but the largest budget that has ever been made available to the education sector of in excess of €10 billion is a considerable investment. Last week, there was an announcement of a €32 million investment in DEIS, meaning that one in four of our students is now availing of DEIS supports in our schools. Some €17 million is being made available for the book rental scheme and there is a €20 million investment in the delivery of books, access to literature and promotion of same in our schools. In light of the challenge of Covid over the past two years, more than €860 million has been made available to schools so that they can continue operating and remain places where students can attend and work. That involves ambition and vision. In what has perhaps been the most challenging time this country and the rest of the world have ever experienced, the Department of Education, in co-operation with stakeholders, found a pathway forward for the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022. Unique in the world in 2021, we offered both a written exam and an accredited grades process. This year, we are ensuring that seated exams are provided for. There is no absence of ambition or investment in education. Empty rhetoric and righteous indignation serve no purpose because, at the end of the day, this is all about action and delivery and I am content with the action and delivery that have been provided by my Department.

The overall aim of the Bill is to ensure greater clarity for parents and guardians about voluntary contributions collected by schools but it remains my view that these objectives would be better met through the advancement of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, which has reached an advanced stage. The approach that I am taking in the charter Bill is to put in place a set of legislative measures that will establish a framework and help support and foster a cultural change in schools in terms of engagement across the whole school community. The charter guidelines will be developed following a consultative process with the education partners. This consultative approach is of fundamental importance. It will help to ensure that the reporting requirements put in place under the charter guidelines are clear to all, ensure that the relevant information needed for transparency is made available and, importantly, are straightforward and workable at school level. The charter guidelines will set out the form and manner in which information is to be provided to students and parents, which includes publishing information about voluntary contributions and how they are spent, and, therefore, it is considered that the particular policy objective of the legislation before us will be achieved with the enactment of the charter Bill. This is an important consideration. It is my firm belief that what Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill sets out to achieve will be achieved in that way.

The charter Bill has already been passed by the Seanad and has completed Second Stage in the Dáil. It now awaits progress to Committee Stage. Therefore, I am seeking the House's approval for my timed amendment.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the Minister for their contributions and I appreciate the former's support for the Bill.

The Minister's speech would have been fine save for the part where she stated that the Bill's primary objective was to provide greater clarity and transparency. Of course, it is not. That is just one relatively marginal part of the Bill. We want greater transparency. We also want a prohibition - this was not addressed by the Minister and is not addressed in the student and parent charter Bill - on children being treated differently while voluntary contributions remain in place. However, the primary objective of the Bill is not transparency. That part is only about addressing a reality that we must deal with until we can get rid of it. The primary objective of the Bill, which the Minister has not really referred to, is to fill the funding gap in our schools that require them to seek voluntary contributions. That is what this legislation is about - schools being underfunded and parents and children suffering because they are being asked to make voluntary contributions on account of that. The Minister has not addressed this in either of her contributions. She has not signalled any view that voluntary contributions are undesirable, any objective of increasing capitation to ensure that the funding gap is closed or any desire to find out what the funding gap even is. She has not signalled that she ever intends to bring an end to the need for voluntary contributions or to their existence itself.

The Bill's primary objective is not even slightly addressed in the student and parent charter Bill. Even the elements that the Minister referenced are scarcely addressed by it. Nor is the issue of the unequal treatment of those children whom Deputy O Ríordáin and I have instanced, who are denied a diary or locker, who are denied access to extracurricular activity, the shame that goes with that and the disengagement from and avoidance of teachers and the school, with children almost scurrying away from the school gate. None of that is addressed in that other Bill.

There is no statement from the Department saying that it will ever properly fund schools. Every month or two in every school, a bill lands from SSE Airtricity or some other provider for heat and light. The Department does not meet the full amount of that bill. The shortfall is made up by John Cotter, Eileen Murphy and whoever else we care to think of from the local community, but the Minister is not proposing to do anything about that. This summer, parents will spend €1,000 or €1,500 on sending all of their children back to school, yet the Minister is not proposing to give them any relief from any direction. There will be nothing on books, nothing on uniforms and nothing on voluntary contributions. There will be nothing at all from the Minister or any other member of the Government to relieve that burden.

I appeal to the Minister. We are still in March and the budgetary negotiations will happen over the summer, so I hope that she will remember this debate. This does not just have to do with her, of course. It also has to do with the Minister for Social Protection and other Ministers. I hope that the Minister, Deputy Foley, will have a discussion with her colleagues – the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys – on trying to arrange some relief.

I hope she will bear in mind not only what I have said but the testimonies she will have seen and read from Barnardos, the Irish League of Credit Unions and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I am sure the Minister can think of instances from the school in which she taught in her teaching days. I hope she will remember that in her budgetary discussions. I hope this is not the end of this debate for this year and that we can address some of the burden on parents.

The Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 very clearly does not address any of these issues, but it can. I hope that following this debate the Minister will discuss with her officials whether some of the provisions of this Bill can be included as amendments in the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019. I will be tabling amendments which will not be out of order. There are all sorts of ways amendments can be ruled out of order. I hope the Department will take it on board and table some of those amendments.

The Department of Education does many good things. I readily acknowledge that. I welcomed yesterday's announcement, albeit that I was not thrilled with the way it was handled in advance. DEIS is a fantastic programme. It will do wonderful things for those schools that get it. For many schools in my constituency and across the country from Kerry to Donegal to Wexford and so on it will do marvellous things. I know a lot of work went into devising that very complex model. I might disagree with certain elements of it and there might be areas in respect of which things can be overlooked, but I know a lot of work went into it. The Minister and I differed in regard to some issues around the protection of schools, but I know a lot of work and money went into supporting schools during Covid as well. It is beyond dispute that our schools are underfunded. Schools would not be seeking voluntary contributions if they were properly funded. I will draw a distinction between the voluntary contributions and bona fide fundraising. Perhaps when the Department does confront this issue that is something we can tease out. I do not have a problem with schools and parents fundraising for a school trip to France or new sports equipment and so on. There are areas that schools can legitimately fund-raise for that do not necessarily impinge on the operation of parents' associations, schools and principals in their ability. The basic running of the school should not be supported by fundraising or voluntary contributions. That should be done in full by the Department of Education.

Tá súil agam go ndéanfaidh an tAire smaoineamh air seo. I gceann naoi mí b’fhéidir go mbeidh deis eile againn labhairt faoi seo ach ní hé seo deireadh an scéil. Tá deis ag an Aire smaoineamh air seo arís i gcomhthéacs cainteanna an bhuiséid, i gcomhthéacs an Bhille seo nuair a thagann sé ar ais, agus i gcomhthéacs an Bhille a rinne sí trácht air maidir le cearta tuismitheoirí agus scoláirí. D’fhéadfaí leasuithe a dhéanamh ar an mBille sin mar níl aon cheist ann nach ndéileálann an Bille faoi mar atá leis an ábhar seo ar chor ar bith. Ní dhéanfaidh sé aon rud do thuismitheoirí atá faoi bhrú ó thaobh airgid agus ní dhéanfaidh sé aon rud chun déileáil leis an easpa maoinithe atá ar fáil do scoileanna ó thaobh caipitíochta de. Caithfear déileáil leis sin agus tá súil agam go smaoineoidh an tAire air sin arís. Caithfimid roinnt relief a thabhairt do theaghlaigh an samhradh seo. Caithfimid gníomh a dhéanamh ó thaobh leabhar, cultacha scoile agus fordheontais mar cuireann na rudaí seo brú millteanach ar dhaoine. Is fíor le rá go bhfuil na costais seo millteanach agus go gcuireann siad tuismitheoirí i dtreo daoine atá ag déanamh cíos ar airgead ar bhonn mídhleathach, agus gach baol a bhaineann leis sin. Tá sé contúirteach agus cuireann sé daoine i dtreo bochtanais.

It is undoubtedly the case that parents find themselves under very severe pressure in the summer. Twenty-one per cent of families have debts of over €500. I would say a proportion of them have very significantly more than that in debt. In many instances, parents are spending over €1,000 and many are going to illegal moneylenders. The State should not be forcing parents who are just doing their best to go to illegal moneylenders to ensure they have enough for the return of their children to school. The State should be paying for their children's books and it should ensure that schools are properly funded so that they do not have to be sending begging letters to parents and families.

The debate is as it is. I will oppose the amendment. As we leave here, I hope that we can return to this issue, that the Department will reconsider the approach it has taken and that the Government can reconsider the approach it has taken and give some relief to these workers and families at a time of a cost of living crisis when they are going to be asked for hundreds, if not over €1,000, to pay for their child's basic education.

Amendment put.

4:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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A division has been called. In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 23 March 2022.