Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Free Education (Prohibition of Fees and Charges) Bill 2018: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, to the Chamber. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which we first proposed a year ago, and I am delighted the Labour Party group has facilitated its Second Stage.
It is a free education Bill. What is there to oppose about that? Many Senators would not necessarily understand the importance of free education. For some people in society and in these Houses, education is something that can be bought but it should not be that way. Our Constitution specifically states primary education is free as a constitutional right but we have not vindicated that right. We in the Labour Party have outlined a number of initiatives about how that right should be vindicated. We have proposed a free book scheme, where children in the Republic of Ireland would be able to avail of schoolbooks just as children in Northern Ireland avail of them for free. Remarkably, we are the ones who are supposed to live in a Republic, as opposed to the children in Northern Ireland, but we do not have free education.
The point of the Bill is to remind all of us that the relationship between a parent or child and the school the child attends should not be financial. It should be one of growth, beauty, education and learning, which should be all one speaks about in the corridors of a school with a parent, student or child. Far too often, however, the letters that are sent home from a school to a parent via a student request a voluntary contribution. If the parent is not in a position to provide the so-called voluntary contribution, the interaction between that parent and the school will become financial, while the likelihood that he or she will engage in school activities will be inhibited. If one feels one does not have the money to give a voluntary contribution, is one less or more likely to attend the parent-teacher meeting, where one will be reminded of that fact? Is one less or more likely to attend a football match or a school concert, or to engage at the school gate with a teacher or a principal who will tell the parents, "By the way, I hope you saw that note we sent home about the voluntary contribution."
In a fully functioning democracy that values education, we would not have voluntary contributions. There are many countries in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, which consider it unbelievable there would be a fundraiser for a school. Is that not what taxes are for? Many will say that without voluntary contributions, the lights cannot be kept on, the school cannot be heated and school activities cannot function properly. Is that not the conversation we should have, namely, about the proper State funding of our school system? Some say the Bill will cost €45 million. Let us find the €45 million, in that case. Let us not speak in terms of tax cuts but rather about proper provision of education for children.
As many people may know, I used to teach and was principal of a school in a disadvantaged part of this city. We were not in the position to ask anybody for a voluntary contribution, nor to ask anybody for a contribution at all. We were not in the position to hold fundraisers that would raise between €40,000 and €50,000, as happens in other parts of the city, because the parents did not have the money. Is that the kind of education system we want to stand over, where those who can provide more receive more, where their children receive more, where their schools receive more, while those who cannot provide the same do not receive the same? Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, does not plug the gap.
The Bill is not trying to prevent fundraisers. They will still be able to be held, with the morale-boosting cake sale and the table quiz, where funds can be raised for general school activities if the school so wishes. A contribution, however, will not be able to be linked to a school activity. The school will not be able to say that if parents do not give money, their children cannot participate, have a locker, take part in a school trip, or avail of whatever resources should be available to every child. We have tried, as have many Governments, to work with school patrons and boards of management to lessen the practice of sending voluntary contribution letters, but it is not working. We have to ban them, therefore, by bringing in legislation that bans the linkage of contributions to school activities. I return to the conversations that parents and students will have about their relationship with the school. How humiliating is it for a child if a teacher or principal surreptitiously identifies him or her in a class and gives the child a little note for his or her mammy? The child will know, as will the parent, that the reason the note has been given to him or her is that the parent has not had the capability to give the voluntary contribution, which can be anything in the region of €85, €150 or €200.
The school will say that without the voluntary contribution, the school cannot be kept alive. That is the conversation the school needs to have with the State and the Department of Education and Skills, which need to be real about the day-to-day running of schools. The Department does not want to have that conversation, however, and it would prefer if it was not its responsibility at all. It would prefer the school managers to run the schools and the boards of management to do what they will, while the Department merely provides the curriculum and pays the teachers. I do not agree with that. We need a State education system which we need the Department to take seriously and fund. That is why we pay our taxes. That is what a fair, transparent and progressive taxation system is all about, and schools should not ask for parents to foot the bill a second time.
Fundamentally, what we are trying to achieve is not to stop fundraising or contributions if somebody wants to contribute to a school. Rather, it is intended to stop the practice of linking financial contributions to school activities and of so-called voluntary contributions because they are not voluntary.What does the aspiration or vision of free education mean? Free education means one does not have to pay for one's books. Free education means one does not have to pay for the school trip. Free education means one is not asked repeatedly for money for arts supplies. Free education means one does not have to pay for the school meal. Free education means one does not have to pay for school transport. This stuff has to be paid for but this is the choice that we have to make in Irish society. Do we believe in a tax cutting regime which individualises everything, which benefits the rich more and which entrenches inequality or do we believe in the provision of public services for everybody? Please do not tell me about the schemes we have in disadvantaged schools, etc. More than one disadvantaged child will be found in every single school in this land as will overlapping, entrenched, intergenerational disadvantage and these are still the children who get the letter home asking for a so called voluntary contribution. It is humiliating, it is undermining, it is embarrassing and it is completely unnecessary in one of the richest countries in Europe.
I appreciate the Government is not opposing the Bill. What we can achieve this evening is that we stand fast to that republican ideal of free education. It is not something I just came up with, it is entrenched in the Constitution of the land. Let us vindicate that right, let us make education free and let us break this chain that drags down so many parents at the school gate, that they will not go past it because they do not have the money. It is not because there is a fee involved in sending one's child to a school in the vast majority of cases. They will not pass the school gate because somebody will ask them an awkward question about the voluntary contribution and the few quid. They will ask parents what is €85 when they are providing education but education is the great leveller and the great liberator. It is the one thing that frees more people from poverty than anything else, not because it turns people into economic units so they can compete in the job market but because it frees the mind. It opens people up to beauty, to poetry and to language and to know the value of love and interpersonal relationships.
Education is everything and a price tag cannot be put on it but in far too many circumstances, there are far too many families who have an envelope in September that they cannot fill. Let us take away that conversation. Let us make the conversations at the school gate about education and about beauty, language, poetry, aspiration and the matters that make the hair stand on the back of the neck. Let us not make it about an envelope and a contribution. Let us make it purely and simply about education.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I thank him for stepping in for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. It gives me great pleasure to second the Bill proposed by Senator Ó Ríordáin on behalf of my Labour Party colleagues. I commend Senator Ó Ríordáin on bringing this Bill forward. All of us here are aware of his long commitment to education. The first time I met the Senator he was principal of St. Laurence O'Toole girls' school and it was really inspirational to see the way in which he sought to ensure that the students in his school were able to share the same aspirations and expectations for their academic careers as students in more advantaged schools.
For a long time there has been a real issue of equality of access to opportunity through education. There have been real issues about the reality of educational access in this country and the reality of hidden costs in education for children. Senator Ó Ríordáin is well aware of that and I know he brings forward this Bill in that spirit. I am glad the Minister and the Government have indicated that they will not be opposing the Bill and I hope we will see strong cross-party support for it because it is in keeping with the republican tradition of free education and it is an important component of same.
Senator Ó Ríordáin has spoken about the Labour Party's track record on educational policy and on seeking to ensure greater equality for all in education. That is important and I know we will continue to work on that. This Bill is modest in keeping with that spirit of equality in education but it is an important one. It would prohibit the charging of fees by schools in respect of admission or enrolment applications, which is a really egregious issue that so many schools do and they generally tell parents that these fees are non-refundable. There is a dubious legality around such a position but this Bill would put beyond doubt the fact that schools would be prohibited from charging such admission or enrolment fees, either upfront or pre-emptive. It would also prohibit the requesting of parents to make any payment or contribution, although it does not prohibit requests for voluntary contributions in certain circumstances, namely, where it is clear to parents that there is no obligation to pay such a contribution and crucially, where students will not be treated differently in accordance with whether or not a contribution has been made or in accordance with the amount of the contributions. That is hugely important. We are all conscious that most schools which ask for voluntary contributions do not seek to differentiate or make any distinction between students and it would be awful for schools to do so but the Bill puts beyond doubt that students cannot be discriminated against on the basis of voluntary contributions made or amounts given by parents. The Bill is also modest in that it does not prohibit fees being charged by fee paying post-primary schools which are specified in a list of such schools published by the Minister, nor does it prohibit fees charged by a boarding school or fees charged for post-leaving certificate courses.
It is modest in its aim but it will nonetheless have a really important impact. By coincidence, when I was canvassing last night I met a parent who, unprompted, started to tell me about hugely problematic issues they were having with paying the so-called "voluntary contribution" on behalf of their pupils. Although the school in question had made it clear it was a voluntary contribution, nonetheless the parent felt it was not something that they could not pay and the reality is that parents feel under pressure to pay it, even when, as in this case, it is really hard for many parents to be able to afford to pay it.
This Bill would make a positive contribution to the debate on equality of access to education. I hope we will see it adopted by Government and passed into law in due course. As I said on the Order of Business, this morning I was at a really positive event in Dublin 8 which was attended by public representatives from all parties and none, namely, the opening of the new building at Griffith Barracks multi-denominational school. It was opened by the Minister, Deputy McHugh, but many of us were present to finally see this wonderful new building opened after 19 years of campaigning by local parents in the school community. It was a positive moment for our community. I see this Bill as being in keeping with that positive spirit and seeking to make a positive contribution to ensuring greater equality of access for our children to education in this republic.
I thank Senator Ó Ríordáin for bringing this Bill forward. As has been stated, the Government is not opposing it. We must go back and look at the 2018 circular. In the Action Plan for Education an increased capitation grant was sought. For 2019, I know there will be an extra 5% in the capitation grant for primary and secondary schools. The Action Plan for Education set out that the Department would issue a circular on something the Minister is very conscious of, namely, the increase in the cost of uniforms. A circular was sent to all schools and parents' associations saying that, where possible, school uniforms should be purchasable from various stores and that crests should be then put on the uniform. Many measures have been suggested by the Minister and the Department to keep down fees.
I am not sure about Dublin. Listening to the Senators there seems to be an issue in Dublin with schools demanding voluntary contributions. I am involved in a few schools and we have students coming in whose families could not afford to pay voluntary contributions and they have never been found wanting or left behind in terms of the school tour or getting school books or the uniform. It is most important that there is inclusivity and that everybody is included. We have many students who come from backgrounds where they could not afford to pay the full amount for a uniform, for school books or to go on the school tour. Recently, in the case of a student who could not afford to go on a school trip, the fees were covered by the parents association or the school. Much is happening behind the scenes where students who cannot afford to pay any fees are being supported.In 2017 the Bill was brought forward by the Department and it prohibits fees. I know that voluntary contributions are made by parents and that people have the option of participating, but I have not found that pressure is being put on families to contribute. That is really important.
I note that the Minister and his Department have introduced a parental charter and that the scheme is being drafted. It is important because parents will have an input into how schools are run and what happens in them. I know from speaking to and working with parents that they believe their views are being listened to. It is important that there will be accountability for how schools are run and money is spent.
We all want fairness for everybody and that is the kernel of the Bill. I know from speaking to the Minister that that is what he wants to see. He certainly wants to work with schools and parents to keep down prohibitive costs because, as we know, the cost of everything is increasing continually. The Bill seeks to include everybody and treat everyone the same. I commend the Senators involved in bringing forward the legislation. I know that the Minister is willing to work with everybody concerned to ensure fairness for everybody. If a student or family cannot afford to make a contribution, it is important that they not be singled out. In my experience such persons are included and nobody knows their predicament. That is really important and a message that must be conveyed. We must ensure costs are kept down, including the cost of uniforms and by way of book rental schemes. I come from Limerick where a very good charity, Gateway to Education, was set up by a volunteer. It arranges for third level students to give grinds to pupils on a voluntary basis. One can also buy a school uniform for between €2 and €3. The charity encourages students to donate their uniforms when they have completed their leaving certificate examinations. It also has up-to-date educational books for all subjects available. People can buy books from it, but if they cannot afford to do so, they will be given them for free.
There are many services available, although I agree that in some places people are put under pressure. However, nobody should feel under pressure and that is what we are seeking to achieve with this legislation. We support the sentiments of Senator Ó Ríordáin and commend him on what he has brought forward.
I am happy that Senator Ó Ríordáin and his party have brought forward this concept, but unless funding is provided from somewhere else, schools will literally not have the lights on and will be unable to pay their bills. As a society, we would love to see everything at this level being paid for centrally and without the need for voluntary contributions or fundraising, in which we are all involved, whether it be on hospital committees or charities in our communities in the areas of health, education, sport and so on. I speak as somebody who is in his 16th year on a board and sixth school board. This is my tenth year as chairman. I also spent nine years on the board of the non-fee paying school I attended as a pupil and happen to be chairman of a few charities, although I know that is not the import of the Bill. I know many principals and chairpersons through my work as a chairman. Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Joint Managerial Body, JMB, which represents school chairpersons and principals in the voluntary sector. The Minister also attended the meeting and made a very interesting, useful and helpful address in response to the address made by the president.
To my knowledge, there is no school that excludes anyone. As somebody who has been a member of school boards, I know that they do not try to intimidate or put pressure on parents if they are unable to pay. I accept that on certain occasions one knows people cannot pay. Conversely, on certain occasions, one knows people just do not want to pay. They have the means to do so, but they are not particularly interested in doing so and if they can get away with not paying, so be it. Then there are the people who will fundraise, pack bags and get involved in organising sponsored fun runs, walks and buy a brick campaigns to carry out works and build things for which the Department will not pay, whether it be a sports hall or various other things.
I know from school principals that there are areas where the figure for voluntary contribution is less than 20%. That is the way it is, but they do not treat anybody differently. Perhaps Senator Ó Ríordáin has personal experience where that is the case, but I certainly do not. By and large, a school board comprises a very compassionate group of volunteers. Typically, in the voluntary sector there are four trustee representatives who often are past parents or pupils. I am referring to two parent representatives who are selected by the parents' council. They are all trying to do what is the best for their school and leave it in a better state at the end of their three-year term on the board. If in the morning one were to ban the collection of charges or fees for anything, schools would not function. They would not be able to buy chemistry supplies, to pay their electricity bills, to buy paper for their photocopiers or repair the boiler when it breaks down. A boiler will never break down in July, it but will always break down in January, February and December.
It is important that we appreciate the work done by school boards and I am not saying the Bill does not do so. We acknowledge the voluntary aspect. Most principals are under enormous pressure to deliver in teaching and learning, but they must also be experts when it comes to burglar alarms, fire alarms, health and safety measures, child protection and human relations. A lot of work goes into being a school principal. I do not know whether Senator Ó Ríordáin sought the research, but I want to know the following. What percentage of the 700 secondary schools and primary schools seek voluntary contributions? What percentage in each of those schools make voluntary contributions? I want to receive anonymised data as I do not want schools to be identified. I think a lot of the figures sought are available. I want to know the money every school in the country receives from the non-governmental sector. Let us quantify the figures. In this day and age there is nothing better than receiving a larger cheque or an electronic funds transfer. Very few schools squander money or spend it in areas in which they do not want to spend it. It is always the case - I include the fee paying sector - where resources are scarce and there is a long list of things one wants to do that one prioritises. There are certain things that absolutely have to be done and certain things one would like to do if one managed to receive a few bob from somewhere. There are other things that take time when one must wait for funding under the summer works scheme and departmental sanction. I would like to see the figure for how many schools seek voluntary contributions and the average amount paid.
Reference was made to admission charges. I know of a school that charges an admission fee mainly because of the administrative burden involved. Let us say a school has 90 places and 800 apply, half of whom are not that serious about attending. If there was no admission fee, people would apply to 20 schools with no real intention of attending 15 or 16 of them. The fee is refundable if someone is offered a place but does not take it up. Charging a fee deters those who are not that interested in attending a school. It deters them from applying to 15 or 20 schools. Nobody is trying to stop anyone from availing of an education. Certainly no one on a school board is trying to do so; neither is the principal nor school staff. It is important that we realise it is a wonderful concept and idea that schools should never have to fundraise and that all of the money they will ever need for anything should come from the State. However, until we reach that stage, there are short and medium-term issues with this legislation. My party and I are more than willing to let it progress to the next Stage where it will be teased out and examined and I hope some of my points will be considered. I am not my party's spokesperson on education, albeit I am reasonably familiar with a lot of education matters, including issues which arise in transition year. In some cases school tours are quite expensive such that some schools organise them, while others do not.It would be fantastic if the Department was willing to pay for them all but I am not sure that it is ready to do so.
We need to tease out this matter. I am not against what is proposed because it would be wonderful, and no school wants to be dealing with cash, collecting voluntary contributions or sending out reminders. I know of schools in more middle-class areas where the voluntary contribution take-up rate is 60% or 65%. Even in those areas, people are not willing to or, in many cases, are not able to, pay. The house and the car might look nice but there could be huge debts.
I commend the Labour Party and Senator Ó Ríordáin on the points they have put forward and on the Bill. However, I feel obliged to point out on behalf of people who have served on school boards that it is more complicated than just clicking our fingers to abolish fees in the morning. I am not suggesting that the Senator is saying this. I hope this can happen sooner rather than later but until it does it is not permissible unless the money comes from somewhere else.
I commend my colleague Senator Ó Ríordáin and his Labour Party colleagues on the Bill. It is an excellent idea but it also brings to attention words we do not like to use in the Chamber in the context of the ideological differences between us. In 1979, when I came home as a 13 year old child, my father had just retired as a factory worker and my mother was the same. I remember the shock when I turned up in school expecting to be given books. How naive was I? In London, books were provided whereas the teacher here told me that I had to buy the textbooks and the notebooks in which I would write. Interestingly, there were not so many voluntary contributions in the 1970s and early 1980s that I can remember but they have become completely de rigueurat this stage.
I examined some of the figures Bernardos provided last year. Each year, Barnardos conducts a survey in respect of this matter. Last year it found that it costs more than €360 to send a senior infant child to school and, at an average of €765, significantly more for a first year pupil. It also found that 11% of primary school parents and 21% of secondary school parents - one in five - are forced to borrow money to cover the costs. The interesting thing is that Fergus Finlay went on to state that €103 million would be enough to make education free in this country. It is really about choices.
I mean my next point respectfully. My colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spoke about the good work that goes on, and I acknowledge this, but surely the first choice we should make as a republic is to believe in free education and implement it. It would not cost the earth but it would mean making different choices. We cannot choose to continue to give tax cuts to the wealthy while turning our backs on children and parents who cannot afford these fees. I know of subtle but clear pressures on parents with regard to the need to pay these fees which, as I have said, are quite substantial.
Senator Ó Ríordáin made the very good point that the potential embarrassment because of not paying the fee would make parents less likely to go to a parent-teacher evening. I do not suggest that teachers would take it out on those parents, quite the opposite, frankly, but it is naturally-----
The point is that it would still potentially inhibit parents if they had not paid the fee to go along that evening. Surely, as a first principle, those of use who claim to be republicans must believe in free education. This is not pie in the sky, it happens throughout most of Europe. It is the norm. The reason it has not happened here is that, unfortunately, because of our history, rather than having a left-right divide, we have been dominated by two right-wing parties that do not believe in universalism and that never have believed in it. Somehow, they feel it is okay that people should pay fees and that it would save the State some money. It does, but at what cost to children and to the principle of equality?
If this recovery is to mean anything, surely the first thing the Government should do, if it gets to introduce the next budget, is ring-fence that €103 million. As Fergus Finlay stated last year, it is petty change in terms of the overall budget for education. Ring-fence the money and make education free. This can be done. What is lacking, and what has always been lacking, is the political will to make it happen. This is why I welcome the Bill. It is a very simple clear Bill that would enable real progress to be made. We should all work together to progress the Bill through the House quickly and put it up to the Government and Ministers to see whether they really believe in the principle of free education.
Another irony regarding the €103 million is the question of by how much we subsidise private fee paying schools each year. I cannot recall the figure but I believe it is somewhere between €35 million and €45 million a year. How does the Minister of State square subsidising private fee-paying schools while allowing parents to suffer because they do not have the money to send their children to school and it is putting them into debt? How can he possibly justify this? What reason could he give for allowing it to continue? It comes down to choices and ideology. For those of us on the left, the lesson is to push progressive politics, as is happening this evening, and not to prop up these parties even if it takes a little longer to get the change we need. For too long we have put up with conservative politics in this country and what it has led to is inequality, mass immigration and failure, not just once but several times.
I am delighted that, to be fair, the Bill will not be opposed and I commend my colleagues in the Labour Party on bringing it forward. If the Government is serious about making a difference, it should ring-fence the money and make it happen. What could be more important than building true equality into our education system? Surely that is more important than tax cuts. Surely it is more important than subsidising multinational companies that already get a hell of a deal in this country. Perhaps we need more debate on this. As I have said, it is an ideological issue. I welcome the contributions made this evening. I hope we get a little more time to see how far we can bring the Bill and challenge the Government and the innate conservatism that has held us back for too long.
I thank the Minister of State for attending. I also thank Senator Ó Ríordáin for bringing forward the Bill. I never really prepare myself for how upset I get at some of these conversations. I continue to be surprised by the distance between politicians and the lived experiences of people in this country. I do not know why I continue to be surprised. Sometimes I think my well-meaning colleagues do not even hear the undertones of what they say when they make their contributions. A huge number of today's contributions have been about how great boards of management are, how great schools are and how much we need to realise that it takes an awful lot of work to run a board of management. I can tell the House in no uncertain terms that the conversations at meetings of boards of management are not reflective of what goes on in a classroom.
I am sorry to tell Senator Horkan that just because he does not see it happening, does not mean it is not happening. He should believe us when we say that not being able to pay contributions means it is embarrassing to drop a child to school and that on many occasions we are shamed. Years ago, when I was on the lone parent's allowance, I was embarrassed time and again when my child came home telling me the teacher had asked about the money. There was no note coming to my door in a closed envelope. It was a direct question to my child about contributions. I bought the books and the uniform. I was used to paying for books because my parents paid for books. It was something I knew about and allowed for. Contribution fees came later. I can tell the House that everything Senator Ó Ríordáin said is true.The problem is that because people like us, and even me now, are not affected, we fail to see it is happening. This is because we listen to the well-meaning conversations of boards of management but they do not reflect the reality or what is happening. I do not care about how a school feels about keeping the lights on if it is going to be to the detriment of a family that cannot keep its lights on. We should not place this burden on any family. We must not shame a family into thinking that if it does not pay a voluntary contribution, a school will not be able to buy art supplies. Why should any parent living on €180 to €250 per week, paying colossal rent and trying to feed and clothe a number of children be the one who has to pay to keep the school lights on? It is such a manipulative way to get money from people. It is manipulation and abuse. It is abuse to say to parents a certain thing cannot be done in a school if they do not pay the student contribution fee. It is failing to account for their inability to make a contribution. The embarrassment it causes is significant. Those affected do not show up for parent-teacher meetings.
There are schools that will not give a child a locker until the student contribution fee is paid. My daughter had to carry massive books to school until I paid the locker fee. This was when she started secondary school. She had to walk to school in the morning with the big, heavy bag of books and back at lunchtime. This is happening. I was less affected by this than many because I did not have to run my own home. I was very lucky to live with my parents, who supported me. I watched what was happening, however. It is happening all around the country, particularly in Dublin. I cannot account for what is happening outside Dublin because I do not have experience of working with parents there.
Teachers are saying to students that they will not be able to engage in a certain activity until the contribution is made. Children are being told directly that the contribution was supposed to have been paid three months ago. Children are being poverty-shamed in front of their classmates, making the rest of the class aware that they have not paid.
When we buy books now, we do not even get to reuse them. The Department or other relevant authority decided to use workbooks. Students do their work on the pages of these workbooks so they cannot even be handed down. Parents used to have an option in that if they bought the books once, they could be passed down to other members of the family. That does not happen now.
I dealt with a case involving a grandmother who was caring for a child. I am not sure what happened to the child's mother. The grandmother did what used to be done in the 1980s. She wrapped the schoolbooks with leftover wallpaper because that was what was done at the time. The school took it off, said it did not look neat and told the grandmother she was to go out and buy brown sheets of paper to cover the books. This is happening every day in classrooms.
I am only scratching the surface because I only ever have so much of the information. We must not continue to have these conversations and talk about how great boards of management are. We know they are doing the work but their members go home to their own lives and are not the children who go home feeling absolutely ashamed of themselves because they believe they are now poor.
As a mother, I would have lied my way through anything when I did not have enough money to pay for something. I would have found myself explaining myself. I have watched my friends do it. They do not even tell each other they cannot afford to pay because they are embarrassed. They just say they forgot to drop up the payment and that they will drop it up the following week. That is literally what parents are doing. They cannot even admit it among themselves that they cannot afford to pay because they feel ashamed and that there is something wrong with them as a consequence. It is happening in every school and children are being shamed.
We need to shift the conversation. If we believe boards of management and teachers are great, let us support them by giving them adequate State funding. They should not keep telling us they have to demand voluntary contributions and place the burden on families that are already feeling embarrassed and ashamed. They must deal with enough without having to tell their child they cannot afford something he or she needs. It is completely unethical. It is completely immoral.
If we are to make an effort to do something, we must advocate for the State to pay adequately for education and not try to make the case that there is nothing else we can do other than request voluntary contributions. Until one walks for a day in the shoes of the affected families, what one says here is completely irrelevant. Talk of teachers and their being well-meaning is completely irrelevant to those who have faced what I describe, who have watched their community face it, and who have watched families with five, six or seven children try to pay for schooling.
Often in communities with a high rate of deprivation and poverty, there is already a negative experience of education. The last thing one needs to do is compound and reinforce that experience by creating a negative relationship between children and their classmates or teacher because their families cannot afford something. There should be a relationship based on equality, allowing the children to flourish.
As Senator Ó Ríordáin stated, when the money factor is introduced, a transactional relationship is created between the family and school or the family and the teacher. It becomes less about learning and more about demanding money. It becomes a service like every other service with which many working class communities already have negative interactions. We need to remove this barrier so we can get to the true nature of education. As politicians, we need to trust families when they outline their experience, regardless of whether we sit on boards of management.
One could sit in a boardroom and be really inspired by the board members and say they are great on the basis of their saying they are doing certain things, but one is not sitting in the family homes listening to the families' stories and experience of interaction with the schools. The problem is that we are starving schools of resources. We are creating a negative relationship between the schools and families instead of supporting schools by giving them adequate funding so they can have a transformative educational relationship with those they work with.
I shall refrain from getting really annoyed. I ask Members to note, when speaking, that just because they do not see something does not mean it is not happening. They should open their eyes a little more and engage with family members who experience what I am talking about.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions. I was asked to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, who is dealing with business in the Dáil. I listened carefully to everything that has been said. I note the legitimacy of everything said. It is important that this be said first.
On the face of it, the Bill is consistent with what has been the long-standing policy on voluntary contributions by parents. The Government will not be opposing this Bill at this Stage and the Department will reflect further on what the Senators have had to say. The first part of the Bill seeks to legislate for the admission and continued enrolment of a student in a school. The Bill does not take into account the commencement of section 64 of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018, which already explicitly prohibits the charging of admission and enrolment fees for admission to or for continued enrolment in a school, with some exceptions, such as boarding schools and fee-charging schools. That is all I have to contribute. We do not oppose the legislation.
Sometimes in this House we introduce legislation and are not sure how far it will go, what it will inspire, whether it will be viewed in a particular way or become a political football, or whether we are all just playing games here. Notwithstanding the contributions of Senators Byrne and Horkan, I find myself humbled to be in a room having listened to what Senators Gavan and Ruane had to say about this legislation. Perhaps it will not get very far and maybe the Government will not accord to it the respect it deserves. Perhaps it will fall on the next Stage, maybe it will be amended to death, or maybe the House will fall before it gets any further but, that said, it was worth listening to what Senator Gavan said about moving from the United Kingdom to Ireland, the necessity of buying books and the ideological reality of the choices voters can make. Having heard Senator Gavan, I am reflecting on the question of what in God's name the Senator and I are doing in different political parties.
This Bill is about the power of the State to deliver equality. The market cannot be trusted to deliver equality because it has no conscience. One cannot depend on the private pocket to deliver what are fundamental State services that will lift people out of poverty. I listened to Senator Ruane outline her real-life experience and to her powerful words.Her note of caution to Senators speaks to the real, lived experience of those we are trying to serve. Schools are not about boards of management. As a former teacher and school principal, I venture to suggest that schools are in fact not even about teachers. The best advice I got when I became a school principal was to put the child at the centre of every decision I made. I took that to the extreme and at the end of the school day I used to sit in their seats to see what they saw, how far they were from the blackboards we had in those days and from the windows and toilets. It was to see how cramped they were. One began to realise that the complaints children sometimes had in class were real. They do not just complain for the sake of it, these are real experiences for them. One does not know what the experience of a child is if one is a teacher sitting at a teacher's desk.
As Senator Ruane stated, the board of management runs the school but the whole point of the education exercise is to inspire people in kitchens and sitting rooms across the land to feel that schools are on their side completely. People should feel that the school and the teacher support them every step of the way and that schools, teachers and principals are singing from the same hymn sheet completely to inspire, drive and help children to grow in a way that, perhaps, their parents did not get a chance to. There is then an envelope and a request for a voluntary contribution because something must be paid for and the books must balance. We all live in the real world. I know we have to heat schools. They must be lit and they must function. However, that is a broader question for the State. There should be no humiliation and any possible circumstance of humiliation a child might feel must be eliminated. Humiliation is not something that happens on the day a child goes to school and has to say his or her mother, father or grandparent will give the money when they can. It sticks with one for life. It is not a temporary thing. It does not stick with one for a day or a week. One remembers for the rest of one's life how one felt when one did not have the money and that gets passed to the next generation.
If it has achieved anything, the Bill has at least allowed us to trade comments and experiences and to discuss the beauty of education and the need to ensure that it is there for everyone and does not come with a price tag. If there is any barrier whatsoever to someone's engagement with a school community, it must be removed. If it costs €45 million to deliver free education or €100 million to deliver the school books scheme, that is a small price to pay. In the context of other conversations we are having on broadband and the children's hospital, €100 million is nothing. What a small price to pay when the cost of not doing it is so great. The cost in humiliation and shame is intergenerational and lasts a lifetime.
I appreciate that the Government is not opposing the Bill. I appreciate that Governments and civil servants must make arguments about why things cannot, should not or may not be able to be done. I get all that, but we have opened a conversation for all of us within our various political parties to reassess the value of education, school life, vision, beauty, love, poetry and all the things we say we believe in. When it comes to election time, we can prioritise the public good, public need and public service above the private tax cut. That is what the children and families of Ireland need. There is no price we should consider too costly if it is to eliminate the possibility of any child or parent feeling humiliation.