Before the buses, bikes and cars started arriving at the school gates for the start of the new school year, work was ongoing behind the scenes to make sure our schools and classrooms would be warm, bright, welcoming places, conducive to learning.
Baskets of crayons were labelled with creative group names, bulletin boards were refreshed with bright backing paper and borders and, at a more mundane level, heating and electricity bills were paid to ensure a bright and comfortable start to the school year.
Any principal will tell you that the day-to-day running of a school is both an expensive and a time-consuming business. Energy prices are rising, buildings must be maintained and teaching a broad curriculum requires resources. Schools are expected to cover day-to-day running costs, maintain the school premises and provide teaching materials on less than a euro per pupil per day. It doesn't take an advanced mathematician to realise that the numbers just don't work!
The September smiles belie the anxiety facing many of our school leaders. What do you do when the budget barely covers the minimum? While costs have risen, the capitation grant paid to primary schools is more than €20 lower per pupil than it was in 2010. Increasingly, schools are put in the embarrassing situation of turning to parents with the begging bowl.
Last year, a report commissioned by the Catholic Primary School Management Association (CPSMA) found that the State meets only 53pc of school running costs. Over €46m per year is contributed by parents or through other fundraising. Free education has become a distant ideal.
As a principal of a large primary school for 19 years, I have first-hand experience of the challenges schools face trying to balance the books. We couldn't have done this without help from parents. Our energetic Parents' Association worked with our Board of Management to host fundraisers, cake sales, book fairs, sponsored walks and raffles. Together, they raised an average of €100 per pupil every year.
Before capitation funding was cut, fundraising was less frequent and the money went towards nice-to-have technology and additional resources to enhance the curriculum. But the successive cuts from 2012 reduced our school budget by €25,000 per year. Fundraising became an annual necessity just to keep the lights on.
Parents helped to bail us out by making up the difference through a €30 voluntary contribution per child, but this is unfair and unsustainable. This August, the Society of Vincent de Paul had a record number of calls from families seeking back-to-school help.
Children's experience in primary school is the foundation for their lifelong learning. A strong start in primary school positively impacts a child's development and their later academic progress. Yet, the importance of primary education is not reflected in the funding our primary schools receive.
The €179 capitation grant per pupil at primary level is a pittance when compared to the €309 per pupil provided at post-primary level. Where is the logic? Electricity providers don't give a discounted rate if under-12s, rather than teenagers, are being asked to 'las na soilse' in the classroom. Computers cost the same regardless of the size of fingers that tap the keys. Our per-pupil spending at primary level is 10pc below the EU average. These disparities are grossly unfair.
As parents across the country drop their little ones off for their first day at 'big' school, it is natural that some tears are shed. But those tears should not be because parents are choosing what necessity they must cut in order to cover the cost of their child's education.
The Government's budget for 2020 needs to restore primary school funding to, at a minimum, its pre-recession level of €200 per pupil per year to ensure our schools can remain warm and welcoming places for all children, without emptying the pockets of parents.
John Boyle is General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation.