Thursday 14 December 2017

Parents pay for education cuts

Colin Gleeson

She hasn't been able to budget for the coming school year and says she may have to cut back on the electricity if she doesn't qualify for State support.

Stephanie Valla-Black is an unemployed single-mother with two daughters in primary school and a son in secondary school.

The woman from Mornington in Co Meath says it's mostly the secondary school costs that are keeping her awake at night.

"Even though I'm unemployed and on job-seekers allowance, I'm not guaranteed to get the back to school allowance," she said.

"It's very tough because everything has been cut and they're talking about more cuts down the line.

"I haven't even contemplated what I'm going to do if I don't get the allowance. I don't know how I'm going to pay for my son.

"If I have to, I'll have to just take it from somewhere -- not pay an ESB bill or something," she added.

Ms Valla-Black is one of thousands of parents around the country who are gearing up for the new school year -- and it isn't cheap.

National Parents' Association (Primary) Director Philip Mudge said many parents are being pushed to the brink when it comes to meeting what are now mounting costs when sending a child to school.

"Certainly things have gotten worse because everyone is counting the pennies more than they were," he said.

"There are so many more families struggling now and they just don't have that extra €50."

He said "voluntary contributions" that parents are asked to make to schools have become a huge problem that can ultimately lead to students dropping out of education.

"The contribution can be anything from €5 towards the photocopying bill up to €150. And the bigger it is, the less voluntary it is.

"There is more than just encouragement going on here. There are certainly cases where children are called from class and asked why the donation isn't in.

"We have people very regularly ringing up our helpline to ask whether the donation is voluntary or not. We are very much aware that schools are struggling, but there needs to be a better way to do it.

"There is a problem if children are being made to feel unwelcome or being singled out because their parents can't afford to meet these costs," he said.

"If children are unhappy in school, they are less likely to want to go.

"The child's attendance then becomes less regular. That is where it starts because a child leaving school is a process rather than an event. Suddenly they can't keep up because they have missed so much and it spirals from there."

Mr Mudge also criticised what he called "designer uniforms" in some schools. "They come with special crests and can only be bought in a particular shop and tend to be a lot more expensive," he said.

"A lot of parents end up having to buy two uniforms then because of the washing cycle and because of wear and tear. Schools are not going into partnership with parents on these issues and they are not being straight up with them," he added.

National Parents' Association (Post-Primary) spokeswoman Rose Tully said Government cutbacks in the education sector are being passed on to parents in the form of "registration fees".

"Some schools now have even brought in a registration fee," she said.

"That can be quite substantial because an extra €100 for parents that have perhaps become unemployed is an awful lot of money. Parents feel as though it is compulsory as well.

"People need to be able to go to the principle if they are in difficulty and explain what is happening without feeling embarrassed or feeling that they are a failure in any way because that is totally unfair.

"At the end of the day, we are supposed to be in an era of free education but there isn't anything free about it as it stands because it's really very demanding.

"The cutbacks that have been imposed across the education sector have been passed on to parents in that regard."

Ms Tully said the cost of schoolbooks and schools' willingness to change booklists on an annual basis is creating serious difficulties for cash-strapped parents.

"Some schools have a school rental scheme for books," she said.

Having this scheme definitely lowers the costs for parents and schools should be encouraged to implement them.

"But the cost is substantial -- there is no doubt about it. Parents should go to the shops early in the year to see about getting good second-hand books. Schools then will decide to change the books for subjects and that also adds to the costs for parents.

"It is absolutely ridiculous. I have heard of incidents where schools will change maybe all of their books. Schools should only decide to change the books in one subject area at a time," Ms Tully said.

She said she hoped that costs were not threatening parents' ability to keep their children in school but added there is "no question that many parents have pushed to their limit".

"Education is a proven route out of poverty. It is the only way forward," she added.

Irish Independent

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