Wednesday 22 November 2017

Reduce uniform and book bills for parents or lose funds, schools warned

Bruton's 'carrot-and-stick' approach on costs just one part of a plan to have best education system in Europe

Education Minister Richard Bruton Picture: Damien Eagers
Education Minister Richard Bruton Picture: Damien Eagers
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Schools that don't keep costs for parents to a minimum will lose out in the State funding they receive to meet their day-to-day bills.

Education Minister Richard Bruton is introducing a 'carrot-and-stick' approach in a bid to keep a lid on what parents have to pay for, which includes uniforms, books, sports gear and mobile technology devices such as tablets.

"Schools have to do everything possible to keep costs down for parents, including the use of generic items, sew-on or iron-on crests, and making sure that various elements of the uniform can be purchased in multiple stores," Mr Bruton said.

The Department of Education will publish its first circular dealing with school costs this week, with immediate effect, although there will be leeway for schools that have already made arrangements for September.

Mr Bruton is making a direct link between how a school upholds the principles set out in the circular and the capitation grant it receives from the State for its running costs.

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The Department of Education pays a capitation grant for each pupil in a school and the rates vary - the standard payment at primary level is €170. The grants were cut in the austerity era and the circular will refer to the commitment to restore them - but with a warning that schools that don't adhere to the new guidelines will receive a smaller increase.

The circular will require schools to sign up to these principles:

All elements of the uniform should be purchasable from various stores;

Only 'iron-on' or 'sew-on' crests should be used;

Wherever possible, generic rather than branded items should be specified;

Provide parents with a list of all required items and indicate the likely costs of these required items at best value stores;

Provide a book rental scheme;

Ban the use of workbooks which cannot be reused;

Where an exclusive supply arrangement applies, it should be tendered for regularly.

Back to school costs are a bone of contention for parents, many of whom sacrifice food and other household bills, or borrow, in order to cover them, according to annual surveys by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) and the children's charity Barnardos

In 2016, ILCU showed the average overall spend on school associated costs for a primary pupil was €967 a year, while at second-level it was €1,474.

While the minister's move will go down well with parents, it may not be universally welcomed in schools or in businesses, such as traditional uniform suppliers, or local shops, who have a trade in branded second-level uniforms.

About 95pc of primary schools already operate a book rental scheme, but they are less common at post-primary level, at 65pc.

Under the new rules, the board of management in each school will have to review the cost of items they require parents to buy and to make this information available to the school community. Schools will also be required to consult with parents on costs and to seek suggestions on cost-reduction initiatives through mechanisms such as the online survey tool Survey Monkey.

Mr Bruton starts his round of the annual teacher conferences today, when he addresses the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) congress in Belfast.

Speaking ahead of the conference, he referred to the commitment in the Action Plan for Education to restore capitation payments and said where schools had introduced the cost effective principles outlined in the circular they would receive a premium capitation payment.

He said to deliver on his ambition to have the best education system in Europe within a decade, "we have to improve information and complaint procedures for parents and students, particularly in relation to costs".

He said the new measures would give parents a strong voice in keeping costs low.

The circular does not deal with the issue of voluntary contributions, which will be covered in a proposed Parent and Student Charter.

Irish Independent

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