Free schoolbooks at primary and second level would cost €120m

Extending free books for post-primary students likely to be a feature of Budget talks

Free schoolbooks could be provided to primary and second level students at a cost of €120 million, according to unpublished estimates by the Department of Education.

The Government announced in Budget 2023 a smaller package of free schoolbooks for more than 500,000 primary school pupils at a cost of about €54 million.

However, Ministers were exploring a larger measure which would have also benefited almost a further 400,000 post-primary students just days before the Budget was announced, internal records show.

The cost of free schoolbooks, stationery and exam papers at second level – with an estimated cost of €70 million – is likely to be the subject of discussion in the run-up to the next Budget.


The Programme for Government, agreed by the Coalition partners in 2020, pledges to expand the free schoolbooks scheme to “schools nationwide, as resources allow”.

The Department of Education has met book publishers and retailers in recent weeks to discuss the rollout and funding of the free schoolbooks announcement at primary level.

Both groups are worried that the allocated funding may not go far enough to meet the cost of books, and fear independent booksellers may lose out.

Figures compiled by children’s charity Barnardos indicate that the average cost of books at primary level is €110. However, the department’s figures are based on an average spend of €85 per child on books at primary level and “classroom resources” such as copybooks at €26 per child.

Department of Education records state that book grants will be paid directly to schools in the autumn, with guidance on how funding should be used.

Additional funding will be provided to cover the costs of administering the scheme across more than 3,000 schools.

“A certain amount of latitude has to be allowed to schools in the matter of how they use some of their funding, for example capitation and ancillary services funding, and also book grant funding,” records state.

“This enables schools to apply their local knowledge in responding to the particular requirements of their own schools. However, schools obviously have to keep duly-verified and/or audited accounts of income and expenditure, and they return their accounts annually to the Financial Services Support Units (FSSU) for schools.”

In helping to estimate the cost of free schoolbooks, the department examined arrangements in Northern Ireland – which has had free schoolbooks for many years – and noted the extent to which voluntary contributions were more common south of the border.

An official noted that funding of schoolbooks and classroom resources in schools in the North were allocated under a “common funding formula” on the basis of pupil numbers and challenges faced by pupils. This funding aims to cover all of a school’s costs.

“Schools in Northern Ireland still seek voluntary contributions but this is more for specific school projects or generally running/maintenance of schools (and are not curriculum/schoolbooks cost related). But the level of parents/families that make such voluntary contributions seems to be quite low compared to in Ireland,” the record states.

The free schoolbooks at primary level, due to commence in September 2023, builds on a book grant of almost €17 million to all recognised primary and post-primary schools within the free education scheme, which provided assistance or books, including book rental schemes.

Under this scheme, it is a matter for the board of management of each individual school to decide on its own policy in relation to the use of this funding in the schools, but they are expected to adopt a “cost-conscious approach” to the selection of books for use in classes.

“The current arrangement relies on the local knowledges of the school in order to ensure a fair allocation of funds to those most in need,” according to internal records.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent