Using every trick in the book to save the pennies for young pupils
A new rental scheme allows families to save almost half of their spend on the latest textbooks, writes Damian Corless
Penned by Dubliner Jonathan Swift in 1704, The Battle Of The Books depicts a tussle between modern learning and discredited old practices that cling on defiantly, refusing to accept their time is up.
Today, the same battle is being played out in Irish schools, albeit under a different guise.
Schoolbooks have never been cheap, but for 50 years that necessary expense has been hiked remorselessly by superficial fine-tuning.
A new photo here, an extra paragraph there, different page numbers. Let's call it a completely new edition and that'll be €20, please.
Generations of hard-pressed parents have submitted to the tyranny of ever-changing schoolbooks that supposedly can't be passed on for the sake of a couple of tweaks, and that travel ever upwards in price.
In better times it was tolerated, but its time is almost up.
A new survey of primary schools shows that 76pc operate a book rental scheme, where parents can make substantial cuts in their back-to-school bills for a fee and/or deposit.
Teachers, parents and bodies like the St Vincent de Paul have called on Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to make these rental schemes mandatory.
The Department of Education allocates €15m annually to schools to subsidise the cost of books. Teaching groups have pointed out that this amounts to just €11 per pupil, or less than the price of a single book.
Schools receive their split of this grant whether or not they operate a rental scheme. Teachers groups want this money to go only to schools operating a rental scheme.
The minister, while voicing his approval for rental schemes, has stopped short of ring-fencing the €15m for such schools while he continues to look into the matter.
In the meantime, most of the country's primary schools are making do and getting on with the task of gathering books for the next school year.
Raymond King is the principal of Scoil na Mainistreach, Celbridge, Co Kildare. He says: "There's a big workload now to get everything ready for the autumn. It's all hands on deck. The sixth class kids help collect the books from all the classes. The transition year kids from the local secondary come in to assemble them.
"The teachers do the fine-tuning, sorting out which are useable, and weeding out the ones that are not. When that's done, we can decide how many new editions we need to buy to replenish the stock."
Scoil na Mainistreach has been phasing in its scheme over the past four years, starting with the core subjects. That scheme is now almost fully in place, and the principal reckons that parents can cut their outlay by almost half.
Martina Murphy, Chair of the school's parents' association, endorses that estimate.
She says: "Last year I had two boys in the school and was able to cut the cost of books by around half."
She says the parents have weighed in behind the scheme, which delivers more than just monetary savings.
"In the past year we've done a lot of fundraising, with part of the money going to supplement the rental scheme. It's a huge thing for parents that no child of theirs will have to start school without the required books. A lot of parents in this area are pressed to the pin of their collar. In many cases, not one but both parents have lost their jobs.
"So, the scheme isn't just about money. It's about dignity, and it's also about recycling. I've noticed that in parallel with the rental scheme, a lot less workbooks are being used. Even two years back we were paying out €12 or €15 for a workbook that would be written on and discarded. What a waste!
"Now, if workbooks are used, the teachers get the kids to write in pencil so it can be rubbed out for the next child down the line."
Of course, things are never that simple, and sometimes the conservation arguments can be lost on the pupils themselves. Conceding that boys will be boys, Martina remarks: "I know from my three that younger kids wouldn't be always thinking of the condition of the books.
"When I took up the state of a cover with one of mine, he argued there wasn't enough room in the locker. A lot of them don't look on schoolbooks as something that deserve taking care of."
Principal Ray King reveals that he began teaching 35 years ago in a school which, even back then, operated a rental scheme.
Which begs the question -- why has it taken so long for the idea to catch on? Was there a snob factor at play in better times?
"No," he replies. "The reception has always been very positive from parents of every socio-economic background. For a long time, it wasn't needed in many places, where you had a sort of social stability and books were passed amongst family and cousins and neighbours.
"But in the past 10-15 years, communities experienced tumultuous change, bringing about an upheaval in primary schools. There's been an influx of new families starting from scratch in the school system, with no networks of family or neighbours for passing on books.
"Getting the scheme up and running is the hard part. Once it's part of the school fabric, maintaining it is relatively straightforward."