Why are teachers shaming children over non-payment of ‘voluntary’ school fees?

It only takes one teacher to name a child for that dreadful experience to be remembered for life

A recent report in The Irish Times, by Ellen O’Donoghue, highlighted the practice, in some schools, of shaming children whose parents haven’t paid the “voluntary” school contributions. It reminded me of an encounter in my own school days.

Free education was introduced the year after I finished school, so families had to pay a fee of, I think, £14 per term. Our farm wasn’t flush with money so payment of the fee was often late. One day, when I was sitting on the edge of the sports field at the CBS secondary school in Naas, the principal, Br O’Grady, materialised beside me. He deftly took a small envelope out of a pocket and slipped it into my hand saying, so he would not be overheard: “Would you ever tell your parents to pay that? It’s still owing.”

It was paid the next day.

The point of this story is that if a Christian Brother could be diplomatic about an unpaid fee in harsher times than these, it astonished me that any school, many decades later, would shame a pupil because this pernicious, voluntary but not really, fee had not yet been paid.


Ellen O’Donoghue’s story is based on a report by the Society of St Vincent De Paul. Here are two examples from it:

“The most concerning finding from the parents’ survey is a theme of students coming home from their school day only to tell their parent that they were named publicly due to non-payment of the voluntary contribution charge. Practices of withholding lockers, journals, and other necessary items from pupils when there is non-payment add to stigma. Examples of this are seen throughout the research.”

One parent said the voluntary contribution “had to be paid or [the] child did not receive [a] homework notebook. [The] teacher would ask where’s your notebook, so all the class would know fees weren’t paid. Very embarrassing for [the] child.”

Any teacher I know would never treat a child in this way. But it only takes one teacher to name a child for the experience to be remembered for life. And if it happens often enough then it can be a small step for that child to develop a sense of shame, to take it into himself or herself, perhaps for life. As a review in the science journal Nature puts it: “Shame is a defining and central feature of human experience and all human relationships.”

Repeated experiences can develop into what Nature calls “shame anxiety” in which a person goes through their days fearing shame. The person can build activities and relationships around their attempts to avoid being shamed — and this can be so, even if they are never again shamed. You might notice some of this in yourself: it’s probably more common than you think. Avoidance behaviours can range from, on one end of the spectrum, avoiding intimacy, giving in far too easily or being alone.

On the other end of the spectrum, a person could be angry, perfectionistic or aggressive to cover up shame. To be able to acknowledge feelings of shame to an empathetic listener can get a person started on the road to recovery. People sometimes, though, feel too ashamed to seek that help. All of this is by way of saying that the SVP report deserves close consideration not only at national level but in schools also. The vast majority of teachers, as I said above, would never treat a child like this but is it clear from the report that some do or that some school managers do. The SVP wants it made clear to parents in all school communications that extra fees are optional and it wants sufficient funding for schools to cover the cost of running them.

A range of other recommendations is made (additional funding for Transition Year for instance) and I hope they will be studied by the powers that be. I mentioned at the start that free education was introduced just after I left school.

Time to finish the job.

  • Pádraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Acceptance — create change and move forward; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).