As the summer holidays draw to a close, anxious parents find their thoughts turning to the ever-increasing costs of (ostensibly free) education.
A survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions has found that the average cost of sending a child back to school in Ireland now stands at €967 for primary students and at €1,474 for secondary students, the highest figures yet recorded.
An estimated 31 per cent of parents will go into debt to help fund these costs, and some 13 per cent anticipate cutting back on food expenditure in order to foot the bills.
In addition to costs such as uniforms and books, the “voluntary” contributions that are expected from most parents by schools are slated to rise to an average of €118 per child for the coming year.
The pressures for parents were greatly intensified by cutbacks independent.ie/irish-news/education/thousands-of-families-to-get-back-to-school-allowance-31302167.html">made in the state’s back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance in 2014: from €150 to €100 for primary-school children and from €250 to €200 for secondary-school students.
(Strict means-testing results in even parents in receipt of the Family Income Supplement not qualifying for the diminished back-to-school allowances.)
These grim findings are backed up by the Barnados’ annual School Costs Survey. The 2016 edition (published earlier this month) opens, appropriately, with the phrase “Education is not free in Ireland.”
Like the Credit Unions report, the Barnados research lays particular stress on the impact of government cutbacks, not only of payments specifically related to school costs, but in other areas such as payments to the carers of those with disabilities. One respondent is quoted as follows:
“As a registered full-time carer to a child with a disability my earning capacity is zero. My sole income is Social Welfare. The Government’s decision to cut Back to School Allowance and the Respite Care Grant together with many extra taxes and levies have had a lasting effect on our family life and on the quality of life of my children.”
Many such respondents are, furthermore, struggling with the more general problem of rising rental costs, especially in Dublin.
Of course, for the parents of those sending their children to private fee-paying schools, the costs above may seem paltry. The annual fee of over €17,000 for a student to enrol at Blackrock College certainly dwarfs the bills described by Barnados.
But, while not denying that some parents doubtless struggle to pay these fees, the vital underlying difference is that a parent sending their child to a fee-paying school is making a choice, and they make that choice because they anticipate (correctly) that their child will reap career and other advantages in the years to come.
And yet, crucially, the salaries of the teachers in fee-paying schools are still mostly paid for from the public purse, i.e., from general tax receipts. Thus, the parents who struggle to meet the costs of “free” education are also subsidising the education of those well enough off to afford access to elite schools.
In a previous column, I criticised proposals for the introduction of student loans to fund third-level education.
It is Ireland’s fee-paying schools that dominate entry to the third-level sector, especially for those degree courses requiring higher points in the Senior Certificate. Students from those schools, in part because their education is subsidised by the population as a whole, will tend to have the least difficulty servicing student loans.
Loans will, rather, principally act as a deterrent to the relatively smaller number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who defy the odds stacked against them at primary and secondary level and make it through to third level.
Their families, already struggling now to cope with escalating primary- and secondary-school costs, will be least able to help out with onerous burdens of third-level student-loan debt stretching out into the future.
That Ireland’s education system (in which I am embedded myself) serves, for the most part, to entrench inequality is unsurprising. That the beneficiaries of that system will fight to defend their privileges is equally unsurprising.
In the face of government attempts to reduce the favouritism in admissions afforded the family members of the past pupils of fee-paying secondary schools, a spokesperson for the past pupils (the risibly named Rock Men) of Blackrock College stated:
“Anything that potentially threatens the tradition where brothers and sons of past students can follow in the footsteps of their brothers and fathers through Blackrock College is a threat to that which many of us hold so dear.”
It would be hard to find a better expression of the smug, self-serving culture of entitlement that permeates the Irish elite. But until the unearned privileges available to the brothers and sons of that state-subsidised elite are indeed curtailed, and support is instead redirected to those who cannot afford to buy shoes for their children at the start of a new school year, any argument that we live in a truly civilised society rings hollow.