The hidden add-ons of back to school that break the bank

With the basics covered, it's the hidden costs that often leave families struggling.

Counting the cost of education...

Many children and families are caught in the poverty trap

thumbnail: Counting the cost of education...
thumbnail: Many children and families are caught in the poverty trap
Caroline Crawford

Parents who have already forked out hundreds of euro in back to school costs are being warned not to ignore the hidden extras which can add up to several hundred more.

The average cost of books, equipment and uniforms for a child starting school for the first time is estimated at €345 by Barnardos.

Many children and families are caught in the poverty trap

However, that fails to take into account the hidden costs throughout the year which are often a much bigger hit for families.

School trips, bake sales and even birthday parties have been highlighted by over-stretched parents as among the biggest hits with the costs quickly adding up.

Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland, warned that the hidden extras were piling real financial pressure on parents facing the back to school season.

"In addition to uniforms, which include tracksuits, runners and shoes, parents must fork out for all-weather coats, scarves, and gloves. Multiply this for two or three children and it's daunting," she said.

After school activities also quickly add up with voluntary contributions flagged as another cost which is often overlooked by parents.

Dublin mum Lucy O'Connor from Donabate is preparing to send her oldest two children Emily (7) and five-year-old Matthew back to school.

Counting the cost of education...

She estimates that she will spend €600 on back to school costs this year - solely on uniform, shoes, books, accessories and the voluntary contribution. It's the hidden extras that cause the real hit with Lucy expecting to fork out a further €800 during the year.

"Throughout the year I will expect to spend a further amount on swimming fees, cake sales, school tours, extra curricular activities and birthday parties," she said.

"People are under the impression that if they get the horrendous costs out of the way in August that's the end of it. But when they are in school there is a constant need to put your hand in your pocket for something.

"Many of the hidden costs are optional but parents tend to feel pressure to get their kids involved in after school activities such as sports, music etc. and also feel pressure to let their child go to at least a few parties and to host a party for their child when their birthday comes around," she said.

Birthday parties are one of the most significant hidden costs, according to Lucy.

"In a lot of schools there is a policy that everyone in the class must be invited to parties. So when you are not throwing them yourself you have the cost of your kids going to others. There are 20 to 25 children in most classes and if you add that up with €10 to €15 going on a present it's a real expense that you just don't think about," she said.

School trips are another expense that often gets overlooked. While the events are often subsidised, the cost can quickly add up when you have a few children all eager to attend.

"They try and keep the cost of the trips down but it all adds up when you're getting a few requests from kids. The same thing happens at Christmas when they want money for Santa visits," she added.

Another unexpected cost is bake sales which schools use in a bid to raise much-needed funds.

"My daughter's school has held multiple fund-raising cake sales this year. That means making the cakes yourself or buying some pre-made and then giving the kids a few euro to buy other cakes. I had three to four last year and it all adds up, it could cost you €50 by the end of the year," she added.

The extracurricular activities also eat into a household budget.

"People don't associate this with school but it all really starts at school age. When the kids were younger I paid the crèche fees and that was it. Now you want to make sure they are involved in some after school activity. My daughter does ballet and it costs €100 a term. Again it's my choice to let her go there but you want your children to have some activities outside school to develop themselves."

This year Emily will also begin swimming classes through the school, Lucy is awaiting a note on the cost.

"The classes usually start in the second part of the year in January so immediately after Christmas that will be a cost that was not on your agenda at all.

Trips to the doctors can also increase once children start school as they are exposed to more children and pick up more germs. In Lucy's case much of that expense occurred when her children were in crèche but she warns parents who had their children at home to brace themselves for it.

Catherine Joyce, Head of Advocacy with Barnardos said the cost of 'free' education in Ireland was having a negative impact on some children's experience of school.

"Many parents are struggling with just the basic costs of sending children to school, the necessities like school books and uniforms. Additional things like school trips, extra sports such as swimming and even school fundraisers add extra pressure to parents who are already buckling under the weight of school costs.

"Children shouldn't be left out of activities their peers enjoy because their parents simply can't afford it. We have a two tier education system in Ireland and many children are being left behind," she added.