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'I am genuinely sick worrying how I am going to pay for back to school costs this year'

A right is not a right if you have to pay for it, writes June Tinsley.

BARNARDOS HAS BEEN a long time campaigner to tackle the issue of school costs because we know through the families we work with, as well as our annual survey, the significant burden these costs place on families, particularly low income families.

Every year parents go to huge lengths to ensure their children have everything they need, many going into debt or forgoing other essential household bills such as food and rent so they can prioritise their child’s education.

I am genuinely sick worrying how I am going to pay for back to school costs this year. All of our household bills are increasing, the only thing left to cut back on is food….We do try and save but it’s just impossible in this society.

Parent, Barnardos School Costs Survey 2016

Our 2016 survey found the costs of buying the basics are on average €365 to send a senior infant pupil to school, and over €785 for a first year student. These figures clearly show that Ireland’s “free” educational system is a total myth. But Barnardos believes it doesn’t have to be this way.

Free education?

It is fifty years since then Minister for Education Donogh O’Malley announced the introduction of free education up to post primary level.

Half a century on from one of the most significant political education decisions, it’s time for the government to finally realise Irish children’s constitutional right to free primary education. A right is not a right if you have to pay for it.

Last week the Minister announced he is to issue a circular getting schools to be more proactive in addressing these costs, particularly reducing uniform costs and stamping out the use of workbooks.

While we welcome this as a small positive step that will hopefully lead to more schools taking measures to reduce the financial burden on parents, it lacks any vision or recognition by the State that schools are totally underfunded.

Opportunities decided at birth

If we are truly determined not to allow any child’s chance in life to be decided at birth by the income levels of their parents, we need government investment and nothing less.

We can’t expect schools to shoulder the burden, many are struggling to make ends meet and are expecting the parents to fill the funding shortfall, which is totally unacceptable and unsustainable.

We hear parents being aggressively pursued for not paying a “voluntary contribution” which is often funding school necessities like electricity, heating and toilet rolls.

We’ve done the maths and have recommended to this Minister and others that it would cost just €103.2m per annum to guarantee a free primary education for all children in Ireland. This is an extra yearly cost-per-pupil of just €185.

This would provide textbooks and workbooks, remove the need to pay for classroom resources and voluntary contributions, provide free transport for those availing of the School Transport Scheme, and restore capitation rates back to 2010 levels.

An inclusive, supportive education system

The impact of an inclusive, supportive education system reaches far beyond school grades. It means all children, regardless of their background, are given the same opportunity to learn and thrive.

It would make Ireland similar to the jurisdictions like Northern Ireland where everything, such as books, art supplies, science equipment, stationery, that the child needs to learn is provided by the State.

If the government’s own ambition to make Ireland’s education system the best in Europe within a decade is to be achieved, significant investment and strong political leadership is required. A comprehensive free primary school system is the foundation stone to attaining this vision, but can only be done if it is sufficiently resourced. That responsibility lies with the government, not with parents.

June Tinsley is the head of advocacy at Barnardos.

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