Pay attention down the back – it’s the A-Z of school

There’s an entire alphabet of financial, educational and societal considerations when preparing a family for the return to school

Aldi: Schools had barely closed their doors for the summer when the German supermarket began promising to sell cash-strapped parents a complete primary-school uniform for €6.50. With the National Consumer Agency putting the cost of uniforms, including shoes, for a year at about €200, such savings were not to be sniffed at. The Aldi deal did leave the kids barefoot: the shoes cost an extra €7.99.

Book rental: Why have Irish schools been so slow to implement these efficient schemes, which would save parents about €40 million a year? In the North, schools are given a budget to supply books to children, usually on loan. In the last budget, Ruairí Quinn secured €15 million to expand book-rental schemes in primary schools. More needs to be done.

Crest: Almost two-thirds of schools that have uniforms want them to carry a crest. Not a bad idea, but do they have to be an integral part of the outfit? A crested uniform – jumper, trousers or skirt, tracksuit and coat – costs more than €100 from most official school suppliers. You can buy the lot in most retail outlets for a third of that.

Driving: The impact school runs have on traffic is most evident during August, when our roads are clear. Enjoy it while you can: the snarl-ups are a fortnight away.


Ebook readers: They sound great – they are interactive and light – but they come at a cost. Parents won't have much change out of €700 in some instances. There are some schools falling over themselves to make tablets mandatory but there hasn't been much consideration of their educational merit, and the Department of Education appears to have little control over their proliferation.

Failure: We like the proposals that emerged last week that would see students earn CAO points for getting 30-39 per cent in higher level papers, if only because it makes "failing" honours exams that little bit harder. The plan from the Irish Universities Association task group on reform of university selection and Entry is just one of a series of proposals aimed at taking the heat out of the points race.

Geography: History and geography are compulsory subjects for the Junior Cert at present. Under the new Junior Cycle, however, many schools will retain both subjects, but teachers are concerned that it will be pushed out in some schools. If that happens, it won't be long before we don't know where we are or how we got here.

Homework: Let's impose a time limit on homework – say 30 minutes for primary-school children and 90 minutes for secondary school. The notion that children of 11 or 12 should be given homework that can eat up all their playtime seems to miss the point of childhood.

Irish: Struggling to remember your módh coinníollach from your tuiseal ginideach? Don't worry, the Minister for the Gaeltacht isn't that far ahead of you. Within minutes of his appointment at the Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, a narrative was emerging that suggested Donegal native Joe McHugh would be all at sea when discussing fisheries as Gaeilge. When Pricewatch asked him how he had got on in Irish in the Leaving Cert, he struggled to remember. And he's done okay.

Junior Cert: Starting this year, the exam is being abolished and replaced with a lower-stakes in-house exam called the Junior Cycle Programme. Teachers will devise and correct some – and eventually all – the subjects. The timetable will be radically altered as schools are instructed to introduce a number of short courses based on local needs and capabilities, to complement the eight to 10 subjects they will offer at exam level.

Kids: The whole back-to-school thing would be pointless without them.

Leaving Cert: Students heading into this most cursed year will be told that the outcome of these exams will shape their destinies, and that, unless they get the points they need to do the thing they think they want to do, they will be doomed. None of this is true. According to an ESRI report published last week, more than 50 per cent of students end up regretting their university choices. So take your time and make general choices.

Mourning mornings: Say what you like about the summer months, but they take much of the hassle out of the typical day. For two or three months, the requirement to get children dressed, washed, fed and sent out the door with homework, a packed lunch and a recorder, a hurl and gym gear is suspended.

Nutrition: The obesity problem among young Irish people is now so bad that the present generation of parents may be the "first to bury our children", the Department of Health secretary general Ambrose McLoughlin warned earlier this summer. He was addressing an Irish Heart Foundation conference on the feasibility of imposing a 20 per cent tax on all sugary drinks. In the absence of that, they should be banned from all schoolyards and lunchboxes.

Oireachtas committee: Last year an Oireachtas committee made another attempt to start a debate on the high cost of free schooling. The Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection called for schools to be prohibited from insisting students wear expensive crested uniforms. It called for the introduction of a universal schoolbook rental scheme, and said workbooks should be banned and voluntary contributions "greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited". It warned that children whose parents struggle to pay for extracurricular activities or voluntary contributions were being stigmatised, and said the relationship between parents and their children's school "should be educational, not financial". The report, which was compiled by Labour's Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, also criticised school patrons for what it said was "a vacuum of leadership". Fast-forward 12 months and what has happened? Not a lot, really.

Points: The system is changing again. Students starting fifth year in 2015 will see the number of ABC/123-style grading bands fall from 14 to eight at each level. Grades will run from H1 to H8 and from O1 to O8.

Quality: There is a lot to moan about when it comes to returning to school, but the quality of our education system is still very good, and the tens of thousands of children who go through it have a more rounded education than most of their peers around the world.

Report card: Not for children, but for those we elect to serve us and the mandarins at the Department of Education. We would sum it up thus: three years ago, the then minister for education Ruairí Quinn said he was exploring schemes to reduce costs for parents. He wanted to cut the cost of books by reducing the practice of editions being revised on a regular basis and was exploring the possibility of eliminating the requirement for parents to buy uniforms from specific shops and allow for the purchase of generic uniforms. At that time, Quinn told the Dáil that if schools "confined themselves to selling their badge or emblem, we could seriously address the cost issues". Despite his comments, very little has been done to soften the financial blow for parents.

School books: The market for school books in the State is worth €55 million. The Department of Education stumps up €15 million for books for disadvantaged schools. Parents pay the rest.

Teachers: For the most part, teachers deserve all our respect for doing an important job without too much fuss – except at Easter, when the gloves come off and the loud hailers come out.

University: The next destination for many of those going back to school in the next few weeks. It used to be expensive. And then it was free. And now it is expensive again.

The Government has not introduced fees for studying at third level, but has instead increased the cost of registering. Before most students get to walk through the doors, they will need to find almost €3,000. But that’s not a fee: it’s still free. Sure it is.

Voluntary contributions: The accepted dictionary definition of the word "voluntary" runs something like this: "Done, made, brought about, undertaken of one's own accord or by free choice." This is a definition many of the State's schools would do well to learn off by heart, as they seem to have developed something of a blind spot when it comes to this word.

Some schools put huge pressure on parents to pay up, with constant reminders sent via their children. Some even go as far as to identify, in front of their classmates, the children of parents who have not paid the contribution.

For years, the National Parents Council has campaigned to bring the cost of education down and has waged a largely unsuccessful war against voluntary contributions, which it describes as “a financial nightmare”. It has called on schools to set up funding committees to look at alternatives to simply passing on the cost of funding shortfalls to parents. While some schools are proactive, others appear at ease with the status quo.

Workbooks: These books, which are used once and then discarded, are a waste of money, costing at least €10 a pop. They are also bad for the environment.

Xeroxing: Well, we call it photocopying. The cost of sending kids to school could fall greatly if workbooks (see above) could be phased out in favour of old-school copy books or, if necessary, photocopied sheets.

Yikes: Free education for all the State's children was introduced by Donogh O'Malley nearly 50 years ago. Since then, Irish parents have cumulatively spent more than €20 billion on educating their offspring as the free school system that was promised turned out to be rather pricey.

Zzzzzzz: Bed times will be returning to normal now that the grand stretches in the evening are coming to an end and autumn rears its golden-brown head. Getting children to bed earlier does have the downside that they will most likely be getting up earlier.