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'Collecting the school voluntary contribution is an unwanted and stressful obligation on principals'

As things stand, the contribution is needed to keep school doors open, writes Joseph A Moynihan.

Joseph A Moynihan PhD, former school principal

FOLLOWING ON FROM a poll question on TheJournal.ie about whether or not so-called voluntary contributions in schools should be scrapped, I felt compelled to make a brief comment on the situation in which schools find themselves today and indeed over the last number of decades. 

I looked at the information offered to those who would vote in this poll and on reading it felt I should vote Yes as I am not a fan of voluntary contributions. However, as the former principal of a large post-primary school, I understand the importance and sheer dependence that schools have upon such income. This caused me to vote No. 

I believe every school should have one mission and that is the delivery of the best possible educational and personal outcomes for each child in their care.

To deliver this, schools need appropriate funding. I can only speak for the post-primary sector and in particular the Voluntary Secondary Schools (VSS) sector, which is the largest proportion of the three secondary school types in Ireland, each of which is funded quite differently.

A comprehensive study on governance and funding in the VSS sector by Darmody & Smyth (2013) clearly demonstrates a blatant disparity in the funding available to each school type.

The VSS sector is the lowest-funded of the three school types and, as a result, remains the most dependent on parental voluntary contributions. The study reveals that over half of all schools use the voluntary contributions to maintain the school, while voluntary secondary schools are more likely to also use this income to pay for secretarial services and security.

There is a whole other piece to be written about what is funded and what is not funded across the three secondary school types. 

The bottom line is that voluntary secondary schools are left to generate income to supplement the cost of actually running the school.

This is just one of the many dilemmas faced by school principals and the school management team on a day-to-day basis. The collection of the voluntary contribution is an unwanted and stressful obligation on schools in order to simply keep the doors open.

It is not about extracurricular activities and school tours, as presented by some commentators, but about actually making ends meet. A key factor behind the variance in the level of contribution requested by each individual school is the amount of fundraising conducted by the already time and cash-strapped parents who send their children to our schools.

The more fundraising that takes place, generally though not always, the lower the voluntary contribution. But neither should actually be necessary.

‘Begging for money’ 

It is fine for Labour Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordán to call for an end to these payments but not without a much louder call on government to appropriately fund our schools and remove this desperate need to literally beg for money from parents to meet funding shortfalls. This is not 21st-century thinking.

Regarding the term voluntary contribution, I have heard the cries to call it what it is – a fee. I clearly recall being directed by the Department of Education and Skills in a 2008 Whole School Evaluation report to remove the word fee from our school policy in this area and to make it abundantly clear to parents that it is a voluntary contribution.

I expect all schools were, and still are, in a similar position. They claimed the word fee suggested a mandatory payment. Conforming with this directive was followed by an anticipated decline in the monies subsequently gathered from parents.

In my experience parents were asked to pay a particular amount each year in a single payment, or in instalments, with an appropriate cap on the amount paid based on the number of children they had attending the school.

Significant time was expended meeting parents in groups or individually trying to explain or even justify the importance of this funding stream for the school, a chestnut that presented at the beginning of each academic year. 

Therefore, had the wording of the poll question been ‘Should voluntary contributions to schools be scrapped and the shortfall in school funding be addressed by government?’, I would have taken great pleasure in voting Yes. 

The status quo in the VSS sector in Ireland, the Cinderella of the three post-primary school types, is far from international best practice, making the Irish education system somewhat unique in this regard.

Politicians on all sides need to focus on pressuring government to remove the disparity in school funding, increase transparency in how schools are funded and in that way remove the pressure on parents and schools to be obliged to supplement the education of our most treasured resource, our children. 

Joseph A Moynihan is a former school principal. 

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About the author:

Joseph A Moynihan  / PhD, former school principal

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