Going back to school should be an exciting time for parents and children; though perhaps less so for the kids after enjoying a couple of months off for summer holidays!

However, the lead up to going back to school can be filled with anxiety for parents with the cost of books, uniforms, childcare… it all adds up. Plus, the additional fact this year that Ireland is still in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis makes for an equation no one can solve clearly.

The Irish League of Credit Unions recently published results of its annual School Costs survey, tracking the costs and impacts of children returning to school. A total of 723 parents (out of a sample size of 2,510) from across Ireland responded to the survey, which was conducted by i-Reach Insights during June.

It found that 72% of parents say that covering the costs of back to school is a financial burden compared to 66% in 2022. Parents are spending €1,152 per primary school child and €1,288 per secondary school child in comparison to 2022, when it was €1,195 and €1,518 respectively.

The School Costs survey findings also included:

  • • Extra-curricular activities [the top expense for primary schools] = €191.
  • • School books [the top expense for secondary schools] = €187.
  • • More than one in four [29%] say they go into debt covering back to school costs.
  • • The average debt amount is €306 [down €33 vs 2022] with 17% having debts over €500.
  • • 70% of parents believe that schools don’t do enough to keep the costs of going back to school down.
  • • 75% of schools ask for a “voluntary” contribution.
  • • Almost two thirds of parents [62%] are forced to deny their children extracurricular activities because they can’t afford them, with more than one third [37%] forced to deny their children new shoes.
  • • Increasing costs of food for school lunches [57%] is the biggest effect of the rising cost of living, followed by increasing costs for school trips/activities (47%) and uniform costs (43%).
  • • 63% of parents shop online for school supplies. Saving money is the reason given by 61% of these parents.
  • In relation to the impact the crisis is having on people’s lives, the survey found that a majority of households [88%] are experiencing cost-of-living increases. Of parents with school-going children, 88% also said they have been affected by general cost-of-living increases. Many parents are using savings to cover these extra costs, while 13% are seeking loans. Slightly more parents [40% compared to 38% of general respondents] are cutting back on activities to save money.

    Commenting on the findings, David Malone, CEO of the Irish League of Credit Unions said, “Our 2023 survey shows that parents continue to feel a considerable financial burden educating their children. While we have seen a slight reduction in the amount being spent per child on back to school costs compared to 2022, general cost-of-living increases are impacting on households. So, while the reduction in back to school costs is welcome, it is partly due to parents cutting back on extra-curricular activities and we still have parents getting into debt to cover back to school costs.

    “We are also seeing the same number of parents getting into debt compared to last year [29% both years]. Thankfully, the message on getting a credit union loan rather than using pay day or money lenders for help with back to school expenses seems to be getting through.”

    However, Mr Malone said that it is still concerning that “13% of parents said they were seeking a loan to cover additional household costs with 2% saying they would go to a moneylender to do so.”

    Mr Malone added that he was hopeful the introduction of the Free Primary School Book Scheme will reduce the need for parents to get into debt in future years. “It is surprising that nearly half [49%] of parents have not been informed of the scheme by their school, and a number of those parents [39%] are intending to purchase school books outright this year. However, we hope to see the full impact of the scheme in our survey next year.”

    The Free Primary School Book Scheme was introduced by the Government earlier this year. It removes the cost of school books, including workbooks and copybooks, for children attending recognised primary schools and special schools. Findings from the survey, however, indicate that 49% of parents have not been informed of the Free Primary School Books Scheme. Of those parents who do not know about the scheme, 39% say they will buy their children’s primary school books outright. It’s also no surprise that nine in 10 [92%] want the free books scheme extended to secondary schools.

    The Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance (BSCFA) is a social welfare payment that can help with the cost of uniforms and footwear for children going to school. Many families automatically qualify for this – there is a list of qualifications on the Citizens Information website – and you if do, you will have been notified in June this year, with payments having started in July which go directly into your bank account.