Costs add up for parents as season of activities kicks off

Pricewatch: Outlay for extracurricular activities often leaves back-to-school costs in ha’penny place

In the run-up to September, newspapers and radio programmes tend to be flooded with back-to-school stories fuelled by surveys highlighting just how much costs are climbing and how little either the Government or school boards are doing to help stressed-out parents manage the bills linked to our “free” education system.

But for many parents, the real financial pain is felt not in August but now, when money has to be found to cover the cost of extracurricular activities. Those costs frequently leave the price of school jumpers and workbooks in the ha’penny place.

Piano lessons will cost about €25 for 30 minutes, a term’s worth of speech and drama, swimming, gymnastics, ballet or kick-boxing can easily cost more than €100 each, and many parents with more than one child in primary school will need at least €1,000 to pay all the bills.

Of course, parents choose to pay for these activities, so it is their own lookout when the end of the month comes and the kitty is empty. But is it really a choice? Extra-curricular activities play an important role in helping children grow into well-adjusted adults who will make a positive contribution to broader society.


In addition to helping children develop rounded personalities and master skills, interests outside of the school and the home – be they chess, tin whistle or drama – give them a sense of belonging, a spirit of generosity and responsibility. They also do more to combat the worsening child obesity crisis than all the health task forces in the country combined.

You would imagine, then, that the State would be falling over itself to fund extracurricular activities, particularly in areas where take-up is low. You’d be wrong.

"Apart from some improvements in playgrounds, very little has been done to support children and their parents in this area," says Prof Pat Dolan of NUI Galway, the first person to be awarded the Unesco chair in children, youth and civic engagement in the Republic.

He describes extracurricular activity as “vitally important” and suggests that by overlooking investment in the area, successive governments have damaged both children coming through the education system and society at large.

“Kids who take part in activities outside of the school and home are more resilient, have more social support under stress, are better able to manage their time and are more productive, and then, of course, there are the health benefits,” he says.

By contrast, Denmark has invested massively in after-school activities for all its young people.

Kids there are encouraged to run youth cafes. There are state-sponsored puppet theatres, and everything from Astroturf five a-side pitches to zither classes are accessible to everyone, funded by a socially- responsible state.

‘Foundation of life’

In this country, extra-curricular activities are largely ignored by government agencies – with some noble exceptions – and remain the preserve of the middle classes.

This means the young people who need the diversion most are the ones who have the least access to it, either because their parents can’t afford the classes or equipment, or because the don’t have a car to bring them to classes.

Mary Gleeson can afford to cover the costs of keeping her kids busy, but that does not make it easy. She has two girls, aged seven and nine, and says the older one is "really sporty" while her younger sister isn't so keen.

“Sport is the foundation of life and the thing that will hopefully keep them away from drink and cigarettes and boys when they are teenagers,” she says, perhaps a little optimistically.

Every week she takes both girls to her local GAA club where they play camogie and football. “The GAA is amazing, not least because it is so cheap,” she says. The Saturday session at Liffey Gaels costs no more than €3 each.

“They spent three weeks at Cúl Camp this summer. The camp was staffed by volunteers. I’d love my kids to be doing that when they get older. It is like a family and it is such a happy place.”

The GAA may be good value, but that’s where the bargain basement activities end for Gleeson. She also has to fork out for piano classes and swimming lessons, art camps and baking courses, and more besides.

“I don’t want them sitting in front of the telly or telling me that they are hungry every five minutes.”

The family live in a duplex apartment in the south inner city, have no garden, and the road in front of the apartment is too busy to allow them to take their bikes out onto the street.

“So they are totally reliant on us to make sure they get outside and get exercise. That does not mean I am going to throw them into everything just for the sake of it.

“It is really important to us that the kids try new things, and once they make the decision that they like to do them, they must understand that they’ve made a commitment, just as we have financially.”

In the coming weeks, Paula McGrath will also have to cover the cost of tennis, piano, sea scouts and ballet for her 12-year-old daughter and her five-year-old twin boys. She says her “chequebook, bruised from schoolbooks, is now battered and torn”.

Reasonably active

The sea scouts for her daughter will set her back more than €400 this year, but she describes it as “brilliant” and “great value for money”.

The scouts supply all the kit and take the members on day trips, both on the water and off it, over the course of the year. Her younger children play tennis and her 16-year-old son plays computer games.

“To be honest I am not sure getting them involved in games and sports matter terribly. They cycle to school so are reasonably active anyway.

“There were none of these organised activities when I was a kid, no such thing as a kids’ camp, and I don’t see the point in pushing the kids into things they don’t want to go to.

"I have heard great things about the GAA and it is very affordable, and my father used to play for Carlow. But we tried it with our oldest son and none of us were that interested. Maybe we're just not GAA people." The annual after-school costs for two children

Piano lessons :€25 for 30 minutes, €1,800

Swimming: outside school in Swan Leisure, €600

Chess: €35 for one term, €140

GAA: annual child membership €20, plus €140 in weekly subs

Camps over mid-term break: Easter and two weeks during summer holidays, €960

Occasional art or baking camp: €50 each for five days

Speech and drama: €400

Total: €4,480