PARENTS are paying “voluntary contributions” of up to €200 a year for each child to help fund school repairs and general building maintenance, according to a new report.
The first comprehensive study on the level and use of parental contributions exposes what “free education” is actually costing families.
Most post-primary schools ask parents for a contribution and the study reveals that half of them use the income to maintain school buildings.
The money is also spent on school trips, secretarial services, security, photocopying, information and communications technology (ICT) and extra-curricular activities such as sport.
While parents are not obliged to pay the contribution, many feel under pressure to accede to the request.
The report, by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), found “stark differences” among different types of schools about whether they asked for a contribution and the level sought.
Parents of children in the 380 voluntary secondary schools are more likely to be asked for a payment and it is also likely to be higher than what is sought in the other sectors.
Voluntary secondary schools are those traditionally run by the religious orders and they represent more than half of about 730 post-primary schools.
There are about 250 schools in the vocational education sector and 94 community and comprehensive schools.
More than four-in-five voluntary secondary schools (87pc) receive contributions, compared with 62pc of community and comprehensive schools and under half (49pc) of vocational schools.
Schools in designated disadvantaged areas, known as DEIS schools, are significantly less likely to receive a contribution (47pc), than non-DEIS schools (73pc).
The report gives a breakdown of what parents are being asked to pay, with almost one-in-three (31pc) of the non-fee paying voluntary schools seeking €150 a year, and one-in-five asking for €200 a year, or more.
In the vocational and community and comprehensive sectors, parents are most frequently asked for €50-€74 per year.
Apart from the voluntary contribution, many schools also ask parents to pay for materials for classes such as art and for transition-year activities.
The report also found major differences in the way the three sectors are funded by Government, which it stated resulted in a lack of transparency, making it difficult to compare school funding on a like-with-like basis.
Voluntary secondary schools receive a grant for each student, while vocational schools receive state funding in the form of a ‘block grant' and community/comprehensive schools negotiate a budget with the department on an annual basis.
Pay for non-teaching staff is covered in the vocational and community comprehensive schools while voluntary secondary schools have to carry any deficit not covered by the grant.
Prof Emer Smyth, co-author of the report, said the study showed that compared with vocational and community/ comprehensive schools, voluntary secondary schools are more reliant on contributions from parents who are facing other financial pressures in the context of the current recession.
The report calls for greater transparency in the funding of school running costs, which would require changing the basis on which such information is reported and recorded to facilitate comparisons.
By Katherine Donnelly