Getting shirty: Are school uniforms a rip-off, class snobbery or a sign of respect?
Rip-off, class snobbery or a sign of respect? Our reporter on a cost too far for many parents
It's the shop window most students dread. In early August the sight of various shades of grey jumpers, green blazers and navy trousers can mean only one thing... the return to the classroom is nigh.
And for many parents, especially if they have more than one child attending school, the latter weeks of August can become an expensive time as they bid to suit and boot their little, and not so little, darlings.
In recent years the calls for the Department of Education to take a more proactive, overarching stand on school uniform policy across all Irish schools has grown in volume but still, it seems, to fall on deaf ears.
"We've dealt with a number of education ministers in relation to bringing down the cost of uniforms and while they see value in what we're saying, nothing has been done," explains Audry Deane, social justice and policy officer with the St Vincent de Paul.
In March 2013, the St Vincent de Paul made a submission to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection on back-to-school costs.
In the submission, they highlighted concerns about the lack of power the education minister has to enforce change in terms of uniform policy and called for schools to offer a choice of less-expensive generic clothing where possible. There has been a surge of applications for the back-to-school allowance this summer.
The clothing and footwear allowance was paid automatically in mid-July to about 105,000 families who received the benefit in 2014. But authorities have received some 51,000 additional claims - an average of more than 5,300 per week - since application forms were issued in mid-June. The allowance, which is means-tested, is paid to parents once a year. It's worth €100 for primary-school children and €200 for second-level students.
Meanwhile, some groups claim parents have been 'bullied' into buying certain uniforms and nearly 10,000 mothers signed an online petition earlier in the year asking for schools to allow pupils to wear generic uniforms.
The 'Can the Crest' campaign, run by parenting website Mummypages.ie, called on Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan to introduce legislation which would see all schools have generic and affordable uniforms on which parents can then sew or iron on the school crest.
They propose that the cost per crest would amount to between €1 and €1.50 and parents could then be allowed to buy a full generic uniform in a specified department store for as little as €6.
The website's spokesperson Laura Haugh told Review that "we surveyed 1,200 mothers across Ireland and found that 77pc felt they were forced into buying a specialised uniform. Also 51pc said they experienced financial difficulty in putting their child through school and 88pc of parents think their uniform is unnecessarily expensive".
They also claim that in at least two cases, school principals confirmed that an 'agreement' exists between schools and a particular clothes store which has exclusive rights to sell the uniform at an inflated price. In return for this exclusivity, school management receive a cut of the money raised from uniform sales which they then reinvest into the school. "We're aware too that in many cases, there's something of a snob factor at play. Some schools would just refuse to have their crests ironed on a generic uniform because it wouldn't look right for the school picture. And in terms of quality, our surveys found that 66pc of mothers polled described the quality of generic uniforms as either good or very good so the poorer quality fabric argument isn't accurate," says Laura.
But for all the clamour about school uniform costs at this time of year, there are many parents who believe that by buying good quality jumpers, skirts and tracksuits for their children, they are actually saving money over the course of a school year and beyond. "My daughter is going into fourth year in Scoil Mhuire in Cork City and has the same jumper as she had when she started in first year," says parent Ann Donlon, who told me that where possible, uniforms are recycled and once too small, sold on to other students at a nominal price.
And Ann believes that the uniforms are important to the identity of the student and should therefore be in respectful and suitable condition.
"Even outside of school hours, young people wearing their uniforms are representing their families and their schools so must act accordingly," she said.
There are a number of primary and secondary schools across Ireland, such as Mount Temple Comprehensive in Clontarf, Dublin where uniforms are not worn.
And many of the newer Educate Together schools operate a non-uniform policy akin to the policy adopted by most educational facilities on mainland Europe.
But Sean Coffey, principal of St Brendan's College in Killarney, told me that visiting students at their all boy's secondary school particularly enjoy wearing the uniform.
"I found it fascinating, but yes, we have students here from the likes of France, Germany and Spain and they're so proud and protective of their school uniform," he said.
"Perhaps they feel it helps them fit in and that there's a lack of pressure in deciding what they should wear each day."
At St Brendan's, an iconic GAA school, just two items of uniform are crested, the school jacket and jumper, and where possible these are recycled and sold on as much as possible.
"We understand that school can be expensive for parents and do what we can to assist. Nothing goes to waste and we also recycle books as much as we can. It's important that we do as much as possible to help but it's also important that things like the uniform remains for symbolism and identity," said Sean.
And across the country, many schools are doing what they can to assist families. In Gaelscoil de hÍde in Fermoy, North Cork, the parents' association operate a shop at their summer fete selling second-hand school uniforms at significantly reduced costs.
"The uniforms nowadays are generally designed to last a few years so when a child outgrows his or her jumper, they often donate them and these can be sold on to someone else," explains the principal of the primary school here, Sean Mac Gearailt.
He believes that attempts to source less expensive uniforms, though understandable, could be misplaced and that the more needless costs lie elsewhere.
"I know from my own children that the uniforms saved us money over the years and also I believe they are a crucial element of school life. There's great pride in wearing the uniform, it's like pulling on the county jersey for some, it says 'this is who I am'," he said.
"The generic uniform argument might not even work, like I don't see many kids accepting generic football tops and ironing the Manchester United or Liverpool logo on to them, do you? It's my belief that trying to overhaul the book requirement issue in Irish schools would make an awful lot more sense. Every year we're told we need this new book and that one. Now we operate a successful book rental scheme here but still the pressures on parents exist''.
On Monday morning, children and teenagers will make their way back through the school gates with long faces and shiny new blazers; others will wear more faded jumpers, and some their civilian clothes.
To a student though, they'll all wish the uniform was back in the shop window and that they were still on a beach somewhere far away from here...
How the prices vary
An Irish League of Credit Union survey found that the parents of primary school children spend an average of €166 per child and secondary school parents spend an average of €258 per tee (including sports and other crested wear).
The prices of school uniforms vary widely. At St Columba's in Rathfarnham, one of the most prestigious secondary schools in the country, the cost of a girl's uniform, based on last summer's figures, came to approximately €305, excluding sportswear.
In 2012 Aldi started advertising its 'cheapest school uniform in Ireland' for €5, all without crests - including a €2 pair of trousers, a €1.25 pair of polo shirts and a €1.75 round-neck sweater. The chain now say they can offer a full uniform for under €5.50.