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Monday 16 September 2019

Your money: What parents could ask schools to do to ease costs of education

As it can cost €1,000-plus a year to send a child to school, parents should have a say, writes Louise McBride

McHugh plans to introduce a new law which will require schools to consult with parents on ways to help reduce costs. Stock photo
McHugh plans to introduce a new law which will require schools to consult with parents on ways to help reduce costs. Stock photo
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Parents struggling with this year's back-to-school fees might take solace from the pledge of Education Minister Joe McHugh to give families more say on the cost of education. McHugh plans to introduce a new law which will require schools to consult with parents on ways to help reduce costs. As a recent Barnardo's survey found that many people are "stressed out, overburdened and fed up" with back-to-school costs, parents should welcome the opportunity to have more of a say on such expenses.

There are, of course, many schools who already listen - and respond - to the concerns of parents on costs.

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However, a law which requires them to consult with parents on back-to-school costs should encourage more discussion about and examination of these expenses - which in turn should hopefully make things more affordable for parents.

It is expected to be this autumn when the bill which requires schools to consult with parents on costs is published - and it will take time then for the law to be passed (if it is).

So if you are a parent who would like to use the upcoming law as an opportunity to suggest ways that your school could help to reduce costs, what kinds of proposals might be worth putting forward?

Make transition year cheaper

The cost of transition year has become a huge financial challenge for many parents in recent times. "The average cost of transition year is €388 - but it can be considerably higher," said Paul Rolston, communications director with the National Parents Council Post Primary, which represents the parents and guardians of secondary school children. Some parents face costs of more than €1,000 for transition year.

Transition year may be optional or mandatory for students, depending on the school policy. Almost nine out of 10 schools offering transition year charge a transition-year fee, according to Rolston. Transition-year fees can range from a couple of hundred euro to several hundred euro and must often be paid before a child starts the school year.

Failure to pay that fee could see the offer of a place in transition year withdrawn - and the student offered a place in fifth year instead.

Transition-year fees typically include most of the major costs associated with the year - including activities, projects, travel costs and student insurance.

The range of costs covered, however, varies depending on the school and so in addition to the transition-year fee, parents often face other costs. The cost of school lockers and international trips - if offered - might not be included in the transition-year fee, for example.

A full breakdown of what the transition-year fee is spent on should be provided to parents - if this is not already provided by the school. Such a breakdown could alert parents to areas where savings might be made.

Ditch foreign school tours

It is typically during transition year that foreign tours are arranged by schools - though not all schools opt for international trips. Foreign school tours can cost €1,000 or more and many parents have to borrow money to cover the cost.

Others have to sacrifice their annual family holiday so they can afford to send their child on the tour. So a discussion between schools and parents as to whether or not foreign tours should be taken off the table completely is certainly warranted. And it is something which families could bring up in any consultation between schools and parents on costs. Yes, foreign school tours have an educational value, but so too do domestic school tours.

There are schools who already consult with parents on tours. Parents, for example, may be given a choice of tours, and asked to vote for their preference - with the tour with the highest number of votes winning.

Even here though, parents could lose out. If the majority vote for the more expensive foreign tour, those parents who voted for the more affordable option will have little choice but to fork out for the trip - unless their child opts out of it (which he or she is likely to feel aggrieved about).

Spread costs out

The bulk of back-to-school costs must usually be paid around the start of the school year. Parents also face other bills throughout the year - such as for activities or tours - which must often be paid within a certain time. Having a system in place which allows parents to spread out costs throughout the year - and which ensures people get plenty of notice of the bills they are expected to pay - would ease pressure on them.

"Doing so could ensure that parents don't have to go to a credit union or money lender to cover school costs," said Rolston. "If you have two or three school-going children - or more - school can be a huge cost over the year."

There are already some schools who allow for costs to be spread out throughout the year.

Hold uniform sales

Second-hand uniform sales are run in a number of schools - often by a school's parents' association. This is usually a good opportunity for parents to buy good-quality second-hand school uniforms at a reduced price, and so is something which could be rolled out across more areas.

Have a generic runner

Parents could suggest that their school introduces generic runners. A pair of branded runners for a child could cost €70 or more.

"Parents come under pressure from their children to get branded runners - and not the school," said Geraldine Scanlon, an assistant professor in psychology and education at DCU. "Children often want branded runners - because everybody else has them. Introducing a generic brand of runners for school could go some way to reducing pressure on parents."

As a parent, you of course do not have to buy branded runners for your child - but it can often be hard to resist pressure to do so.

Revisit voluntary contributions

The so-called voluntary contributions to schools typically range from €30 to €115 - but in some cases, can be more than €200.

Not all schools ask for a voluntary contribution but those that do not will often try to raise money from parents through various fundraising activities. It must be acknowledged that voluntary contributions - and money raised through fundraising activities - are ways to help schools make ends meet. All the same, parents could advocate that schools adopt a more sensitive and flexible policy around voluntary contributions.

"Voluntary contributions are not paid on a sliding scale - there is usually a fixed rate for every child and it is usually assumed that every parent will pay the voluntary contribution," said Scanlon. "Our very vulnerable and marginal groups are usually expected to pay these voluntary contributions. The policies of schools need to be more sensitive toward the needs of these more vulnerable groups." Such groups could include the homeless, single parents, separated parents and low-income families.

Former education minister Richard Bruton has previously stated that any school which forces parents to pay a voluntary contribution, or gives that impression, will face investigation by the Department of Education. However, the reality on the ground is that pupils can be adversely affected if a contribution is not paid. "We have come across many cases where lockers have been refused to pupils - and trips and activities denied - as a result of non-payment of voluntary contributions," said Rolston.

Cuts to school capitation grants during the recession are thought to be one of the main reasons for the increase in recent years in the number of schools seeking voluntary contributions. Those cuts have seen many teachers subsidise classroom stationery and art supplies out of their own pockets.

So the Government also clearly has its own role to play on school costs. Although school capitation grants are set to be increased this September, many believe the rises do not go far enough, and that the Government needs to invest more in education. Under its upcoming law, the Government wants to encourage a 'listening culture' in schools. However, the State has a duty to listen too.

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