Ireland’s €1,379-a-year ‘free education’ system

Fine Gael promised us free school books more than 80 years ago. We’re still waiting

A Fine Gael poster for a general election, which took place in June 1937 on the same day the Constitution was ratified, promised that a vote for the party would deliver free school books to all Ireland’s children.

It sounded alluring, but the electorate didn’t buy it. Fianna Fáil were returned to power, and the following September parents were – as ever – asked to pay for text books for their school-going children.

There have been 81 Septembers since that election, and little has changed. Parents are still expected to cough up for an education for their children that the Constitution backed on that day and was decreed as free.

It is anything but. An annual school costs survey published by Barnardos earlier this month found that when the cost of clothes, shoes, books, stationery, classroom resources and the voluntary contribution are totted up, a child going into senior infants will cost €360, while the cost of sending a child into secondary school climbs to €765.


Derek McCormack from Dublin was one parent who paid €200 for something his child's non-fee paying secondary school calls 'school fees'

According to the survey, parents with children in senior infants will spend an average of €100 on clothes, with clothes for fourth-class children climbing to €115, and to €245 for children in secondary school. Shoes for younger children are said to cost €50 while in secondary school the price climbs to €70. Books for a senior infant cost €75 while the parents of a first year in secondary school will have to spend €240.

A similar school costs survey commissioned by the Irish League of Credit Unions, meanwhile, was even more bleak. It found that parents were spending an average of €999 per primary school child and €1,379 per secondary school pupil.

Compare that with the UK where, a study published earlier this month suggested, the cost of sending a child back to school is £189 (€211) while in Finland parents spend little more than €80 on sending their offspring to school each September.

The consequences of the high cost of an Irish education were laid bare at the beginning of this week, when the Society of St Vincent De Paul (SVP) revealed that it had seen a 20 per cent increase in calls for back-to-school help this summer with more than 6,000 contacts set to be made by the end of August.

‘Voluntary contributions’

So-called “voluntary contributions” are behind many cries for help. They have been identified by the National Parents’ Council Post-Primary as a major and ongoing problem. It said this week that many such contributions were now – effectively – compulsory, adding that it regularly gets calls “from distraught parents to report that their children have been denied lockers at school, not allowed to participate in transition year or some other school activity” or otherwise penalised because their parents were unable to pay the contribution.

In comments contained in a submission to the Oireachtas education committee which held a special series of meetings on school costs this week, it said most parents were paying up to €150 although just under 10 per cent said they were asked to pay more than €200.

Derek McCormack from Dublin was one parent who paid €200 for something his child’s non-fee paying secondary school calls “school fees”. He said he was “unsure exactly what it is for and there doesn’t seem to be any transparency. All I know is that I have to pay it.”

Earlier this year Labour Party senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin brought a Bill to the Seanad which would ban schools from seeking voluntary contributions from parents, unless it is made clear that there was no obligation on them to pay. Parents contribute about €46 million a year to schools, and many parents have said they feel pressurised into doing so.

When introducing the Bill, Mr Ó Ríordáin, a former primary school principal, said his intention was “to make education completely free”.

Free book scheme

Such a move can’t come soon enough for Mr McCormack. He has calculated that this year he will spend “around €1,000 on back-to-school costs. That’s quite good but it’s still €2,000 we have to earn to cover it.”

It does not include the cost of electronic devices such as phones and the iPad his oldest child needs for school.

Apart from the mysterious €200 in school fees, the thing that bugs him “the most is the school jumpers”, he said. “I look at jumpers selling in Dunnes and Tesco for a fiver and the jumper we have to buy costs €40 because it is crested. I know the Department of Education said schools should encourage the use of generic uniforms but I haven’t seen it happening.”

Mr Ó Ríordáin said a free book scheme could be introduced across the State's primary schools for €20 million

Sarah Conway is a single mother from Dublin and only recently re-entered the workforce. “I have two children in primary school,” she said. Next year she will have three children in school after her youngest starts primary school.

“I hope to start saving in January,” she said. “At least that’s the plan, but I tell myself that every year but when you’re trying to get by week to week, it’s hard to put money by. This September, like every other year, there will be bills I won’t pay and I will have to cut back on my food shopping. It will be the end of October before I’m back on top of things and then of course we are straight into Christmas.”

She has kept all the receipts for her daughter starting secondary school because the child’s father pays half. “When I totted it all up it comes to €620,” she said. “That covers the uniform, her books, stationery, PE gear, good shoes and a trainers and a good coat.”

Mr Ó Ríordáin said a free book scheme could be introduced across the State’s primary schools for €20 million, and he said it would be a big win politically for whichever Minister rolled it out.

Department of Education

“But you must remember we are not talking about the political side of the Department of Education, we are talking about the eternal government, the non-elected and never-have-to-be-elected department officials.”

He suggested that what was needed was “a massive mindset change internally” and he claimed that the status quo “suits the department and the permanent unelected government. This is less about money and more about power and influence and who runs the schools.

“The department does not want to engage in the day-to-day management of schools, and it suits it to have boards of management and school patrons to independently run them.”

He believes the department has “a culture of sending out circulars as opposed to legislating” so effectively it is offering guidance rather than mandating change. “My brief experience in Government has taught me that unless you are completely fixated on an issue and unless you raise it five or six times a day with every official you meet, it doesn’t happen.”

The Department of Education can’t make schools cut the cost of uniforms or books for parents, and it admitted this week that a circular sent to all schools last year by the Minister for Education Richard Bruton which required school authorities to adopt “principles of cost-effective practice” in key areas had made little difference.

An internal memo prepared by a senior official said the circular had “no more authority than any department circular . . . furthermore, there are no ready sanctions that can be applied when schools fail to comply”.


A department spokeswoman said earlier this week that although schools were expected to carry out the provisions in the circular and those who did would be rewarded, no school had ever yet been rewarded on this basis.

Mr Ó Ríordáin said that “too many school principals and teachers have a financial and not an educational relationship with parents. As a principal in a disadvantaged school I spent far too much of my time asking parents for book money and not enough time talking about education and diet and student welfare.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education insisted that things were being done and she told The Irish Times that a "keen cost approach" would be "underpinned in law by the Parent and Student Charter Bill, which will require schools to consult with parents on a number of issues, including items such as school costs. It will also require schools to publish a financial statement showing how any voluntary contribution is spent by the school."

The head of advocacy at Barnardos, June Tinsley, was unimpressed and suggested that talk of a charter was something she had been “hearing about that for years, I have to say, I think it’s a smokescreen”. She said parents wanted to “address the fallacy of free education in this country. There is so much frustration out there.”

The numbers

€999: Average yearly cost per primary school pupil

€1,379: Average yearly cost per secondary school pupil

€100: Cost of clothes for senior-infant pupil

€245: Cost of clothes for secondary school pupil

€75: Cost of books for senior-infant pupil

€240: Cost of books for secondary school pupil

Sources: Barnardos, Irish League of Credit Unions