In 1967, the government under the then Taoiseach Sean Lemass introduced a significant and historical change in Ireland.

The free education scheme came into effect. Up until then, only a small number of children who left primary school continued their schooling.

Today, 95% of secondary school students complete their Leaving Certificate, which is above the European average of 84% percent.

It was and continues to be one of the most successful political policies in modern Irish history which contributes to a well-educated workforce.

However, that concept of free education gets called into question every August as parents prepare to send their children back to school. This year, that pressure is being felt even more significantly.

In the 12 months since parents purchased new uniforms and school bags, families have faced food inflation hikes of 7.7% and energy increases of over 30%.

This is on top of the fact that back to school prices themselves have also increased.

This year’s survey of 764 parents run by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) shows families are now spending an average of €1,195 to send their child back to primary school, up €9 from last year and €1,518 to send their child back to secondary school, up €27 from last year.

This year, that pressure is being felt even more significantly

Although that is only a few euros in the difference compared to 2021 prices, what is more worrying is the statistic that 29% of parents are now getting into debt because of back-to-school costs, up 24% since last year.

The average debt is running at €339 but one fifth of those facing debt ?say they are in the red for more than €500. Credit cards are one of the most expensive forms of credit if they aren’t paid back on time.

Yet 23% of parents are being forced to use them for back-to-school costs, compared to just 6% last year. 1 in 10 (10%) of parents with school children are, knowingly, considering using an illegal moneylender.

With costs increasing, parents have said that they have been forced to make changes and cutbacks.

For example, more parents have done their shopping online this year (31% compared to 17% last year) to save on the cost of petrol.

After school and extra-curricular activities are going to? be seriously impacted this year with 67% of parents saying they just have to cut back for financial reasons.

The costs:

School books: €210

Uniforms: €195

Transport: €213

After school care: €184

Extracurricular activities: €167

Voluntary Contribution Fee

There is certain back to school costs that cannot be avoided. Children need school books and stationery, new shoes and often a bigger uniform.

However, there is one cost that could be avoided -the voluntary contribution fee.

The voluntary contribution fee is a request made by schools to ‘support’ the school. Essentially, it makes up the gap between government funding and the money actually needed to run the school efficiently.

There are many issues with this fee, the overriding issue being that Irish schools are not being funded adequately and thereby, have to resort to asking parents for money, calling into question the concept of free education.

However, there is also huge discrepancy and lack of consistency when it comes to the fees.

In a recent survey run by Barnardos, 65% of primary schools and 73% of secondary schools ask ?parents to pay a voluntary contribution fee.

So some parents are faced with this additional cost while others are not.

The average fee detailed in the survey was €81 at primary school level and €124 at secondary school level. But these are average fees. One parent who spoke to Irish Country Living outlined that when their daughter started secondary school, the fee was €320 a year.

it took a lot of courage to approach the school and say I couldn’t pay the fee

There is also major issue with the word ‘voluntary’. When parents were asked in the Barnardos study if the request felt ‘voluntary’, 70% said no. This is putting a lot of pressure on parents that cannot afford it.

One parent spoke to Irish Country Living anonymously about her interaction with her child’s school when she couldn’t afford to pay.

She said, “I am a single mother and I work hard to make sure my child has everything she needs going back to school.

So it took a lot of courage to approach the school and say I couldn’t pay the fee, I was embarrassed.

However, their reply was they would help me put a payment plan in place, it was not the reply I was expecting.”

Suzanne Connolly, Barnardos CEO says, “The underfunding of schools has meant that parents are left trying to help schools meet shortfalls in funding through voluntary contributions.

The government must provide adequate funding to schools so that they no longer have to rely on additional contributions from parents.  

‘Barnardos is calling on the government to take further steps in providing free education by introducing free schoolbooks, ensuring all schools allow for affordable uniforms, ending voluntary contributions and maintaining the recent increase in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance.’ 

The Voluntary Contribution Bill

There is a lot of frustration amongst parents about the voluntary contribution, and many have approached their local TD’s to tackle it.

The Voluntary Contribution Bill was brought forward last year by Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Spokesperson on Education & Skills with Sinn Féin.

He says, “Here in Ireland, parents are very familiar with the concept of a voluntary contribution. However, in other countries, the school system doesn’t need to turn to parents for financial supports for basic resources such as electricity and water.

The reality is there is a gap between the financial supports from the Department of Education and the money a school needs to run on a day-to-day basis. The extent of that gap is unknown.

“Therefore, last year, the Education (Voluntary Contributions) Bill 2021 was brought forward. Essentially, we are calling for voluntary contributions to be abolished.

a set of rules needs to be put in place so there is consistency across the country in terms of the contribution fee

The reality though is that this isn’t going to happen overnight, schools are underfunded so first, we need to establish what the overall gap is in terms of functioning versus the government’s allocation so we can budget accordingly.

“This will take time so in the interim, a set of rules needs to be put in place so there is consistency across the country in terms of the contribution fee.

This includes the messaging that is presented to parents as well as the frequency, so parents don’t feel pressured. There also cannot be any negative consequences on students if their parents cannot afford to pay.

Unfortunately, we have heard examples of students not being allocated lockers or included in extracurricular activities because the voluntary contribution has not been made. We want to ban any differential treatment immediately.”

The bill was first put forward in September 2021 and was debated in the Dáil in February.

The government did not oppose the bill but proposed to delay it by nine months, which means it will not have any impact on parents getting their children ready for school this September.

However, it will be up for consideration in November again when it will most likely be put to a vote.

Donnchadh says, “If the government are serious about tackling the issue of voluntary contributions, there is no reason that this could not be put in place for the school year of 2023-2024.

Parents’ comments

“In my opinion, it’s not a ‘voluntary’ contribution unless parents have the option to opt out, or to pay an amount that they decide for themselves and that they can afford.

When the school sets the level and expects parents to pay it without question, it’s a set charge.

My son starts primary school this September and I was shocked when I realised I have to pay for books and photocopying etc.

I went to primary school in England and my parents didn’t have to pay anything to the school.”

“Our school have not informed us yet what the voluntary contribution fee will be this year but I’m fearful that it will increase.

I know schools are going to come under more pressure this year, as they too will be faced with higher energy bills and the increased cost of living.

But this cannot fall back on the parents. Our children have moved primary school three times and each school has asked for different contributions.

The first school was asking for €100 per child and I felt all the messaging from August to Christmas was pressuring parents to pay.

After Christmas, it took on a tone to the effect of, if you hadn’t paid yet you were letting the children down and it was hindering future school activities so could it be paid asap.

The second school was a little different. The first child was the full amount and subsequent children were 60%, in total it was €250. They too “hassled” parents with constant messaging but they did offer a payment plan.

The school the kids are in now is much better. Its €30 euro for one child or €50 per family, regardless of the numbers.

You can pay anytime and they message in September, January and at the end of the year but there is no ‘hassling’.

My daughter started secondary school last year and we were asked for fees of €320 a year.

Personally, I think all schools should have the same fees and no additional add-ons allowed. Also anyone that is getting the back to school allowance shouldn’t be asked.

It’s a means assessed payment and if you qualify, it means you need assistance and not more bills.

Our school asks for a voluntary contribution fee of €100 per family but I don’t pay it.

I did pay it when my son was in the infant classes but I was never informed what the money went towards. We pay enough to send them back to school with uniforms, books, stationary etc.

On top of that, we’re asked for €5 here, €2 there throughout the year and I feel like I give enough to the school.

I don’t think it’s expected from this current principal but the one before used send an email once a month with the newsletter as a friendly reminder.”

“My eldest child is starting primary school this year and in the welcome pack, we were informed of a voluntary contribution fee of €75 per family.

It stated that it is much appreciated and at our discretion.

However, in July, I received an automated text message saying there was an outstanding payment for my child and a payment link.

I can afford it and paid straight away but I have no idea what this money is used for as book rental fees and arts and crafts fees are separate.”

“As a parent, I feel we are genuinely lucky to have such a good national school system in Ireland.

“Our school has been very good in capping the voluntary contribution if you have multiple kids in the school and in 2021 / 2022 they waived the voluntary contribution in recognition of the support of parents to the school during COVID 19.

This was very welcome. I understand the need for the voluntary contribution however, I would be concerned if it was to increase significantly.

It helps if you know in good time when it is due so that families can at least plan for it financially.

The issue in the past is that it often comes at a time when you are also paying for books, uniforms, after school activities etc.

Education should be free as it is in other countries. It should start with free schoolbooks and extend to all costs. No child’s education should depend on their parents’ ability to pay.”

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