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Rollout of free schoolbooks for Junior Cycle students ‘in doubt’

More than 80 per cent of principals say necessary supports to navigate procurement process not in place

School principals have warned that many second-level schools may not be able to roll out the free schoolbooks scheme in time for next September due to inadequate supports around a “complicated procurement process”.

Minister for Education Norma Foley announced recently that more than 200,000 students in the Junior Cycle years – first to third year – would be entitled to free books and ebooks from next September. Parents can expect to save about €300 a year on foot of the initiative.

However, the National Association of Principals and Deputies (NAPD), which represents post-primary school leaders, said a new survey of members showed 83 per cent of respondents felt the necessary supports and information were not available.

The organisation acknowledged what it described as the “immense effort” of the Department of Education in seeking to support schools to deliver the scheme, but said a complicated procurement process was acting as a large stumbling block and only 36 per cent expressed confidence in their school’s ability to deliver the scheme effectively by September.


Principals reported the process involved designing tender documents for purchases in excess of €50,000, navigating the etenders process, evaluating bids, navigating supplier relationships, managing the budget allocation, and preparing for audit and compliance evaluations.

The NAPD said the procurement process took time and “time is not on our side” in being able to deliver the scheme by September.

Paul Crone, the association’s director, said the process was placing extra pressure on principals and taking them away from engaging with students, their parents and the wider school community. “We have long been highlighting the growing administrative burden which is being placed on principals. Finance, procurement, HR, health and safety and facilities management are among the many admin tasks which are taking principals away from what is actually important – engaging with their students,” he said.

“The reports we are receiving from members in relation to the extra specialist administrative work being created through the School Book Scheme procurement process and the lack of specialist expertise is very concerning.”

In response, the Department of Education said it recognised this was the first year of “a major new landmark scheme” and that challenges may be experienced in the first year.

In a statement, it said it was allocating an administration support grant to schools for the 2024-2025 school year to employ individuals to work for a specified number of days to carry out administrative work on the scheme.

Ten, 13 or 16 days are allocated to each post-primary school, based on the size of the school’s junior cycle enrolment numbers.

It added that schools had obligations that stemmed from both EU and national public procurement rules when sourcing goods and services, and these had been in place for some years.

A total of 246 schools that are part of the education and training board system have access to procurement support in their ETB. It acknowledged that some voluntary secondary and community and comprehensive schools may have had limited experience in public procurement where the amounts involved were over a certain threshold.

The department said it had undertaken to provide additional user-friendly resources and support to assist these schools in fulfilling these requirements following the Easter break.

However, Mr Crone said additional administrative support was needed as the success of the initiative still hinged on the ability of the school principal to navigate a procurement process which “falls solely on them”.

He said principals wanted to see it up and running in time for September, but “this is now looking in doubt for many schools”.

“We are now appealing to the Minister for Education, Norma Foley, to seriously consider providing expert administrative support to post-primary schools in order to ease the increasing admin pressures and provide the capacity in our system for principals to prioritise their time for their students,” he said.

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