160,000 seeking help with school costs
PARENTS throughout Ireland are facing into a dreaded week in order to ready their children for school, with record numbers seeking assistance from the State to cover the cost.
Uniform-makers and school-book publishers have been severely criticised this weekend for not reducing their prices, despite deflation in the economy.
Parents' groups have called on the Government to intervene to stop parents being treated as "hostages to fortune" by such companies.
Irish families surveyed by schooldays.ie are spending an average of €700 per child this month as they prepare to send children back to school.
Some larger families could find costs running to more than €1,000 on books and clothes alone.
The Sunday Independent spoke to one parent yesterday who said she had spent €400 on books and another €400 for uniforms and sports gear for her teenage daughter, who is starting secondary school next week.
Some shops specialising in 'back to school' clothes have also been criticised for not displaying prices for parents.
The Department of Social Protection has also confirmed that the number claiming Back to School Assistance is at a record high of more than 160,000 applicants. A total of €82m is being allocated to the clothing and footwear allowance this year.
But there is also a major delay in the processing of such payments, due to the number of applications. As of last week, 122,000 claims had been submitted to HSE community welfare officers for the allowance, but only 49,000 of these have been processed.
"When it comes to getting children back to school in a few weeks' time, many thousands of families who badly need this additional support will simply not have it," said Labour TD Joanna Tuffy.
Fine Gael's Brian Hayes said yesterday it was clear that the number of people applying for assistance from the State to get their children through school had reached "epidemic proportions".
Meanwhile, two second-level teaching unions are to meet this week to decide their next moves as high-stakes negotiations continue with the Department of Education over a number of key issues, including the filling of posts left vacant as a result of the promotions embargo.
Although both second-level teaching unions rejected the Croke Park Deal, other contentious points include a proposal that teachers work an extra hour a week and a revised teaching contract, which they fear could include redeployment.
However, several sources yesterday downplayed reports that the situation could cause "chaos" in schools in the autumn if the problems were not resolved.
The Department of Education would only reiterate yesterday that it was involved in discussions with a view to establishing if a way forward could be found.
A relaxation of the promotions ban in June has not mollified the unions. ASTI general-secretary designate Pat King said schools were "struggling to cope with the loss of key postholders, like year heads, programme co-ordinators and exam secretaries.".
The TUI also complained that the alleviation would "barely stick a plaster over damage already inflicted".
The union general secretary Peter MacMenamin said: "Management structures have effectively been dismantled by this moratorium and the situation grows worse with each loss of a post through a retirement.
"This alleviation will fall far short of clawing back the estimated 700 assistant principal posts lost since the introduction of this slash and burn policy and students will continue to suffer."
It was unclear last night whether Education Minister Mary Coughlan would intervene directly in the talks to try to break the impasse. She has strongly insisted that there can be no return to a situation in which half of all teachers had promotion posts.
Both the Tui and ASTI have directed members not to undertake duties left vacant by retiring post holders or to agree to reallocation of duties.
A large number of teachers have retired early because of a widespread belief that retirement perks could be taxed in the coming Budget. The ASTI is to look at the situation again on Tuesday, while the TUI will consider the problems at a meeting on Friday.