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”>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.

As a Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) spokesperson has put it, “there is an unconscionable amount of money, taxpayers’ money[,] provided to schools that are independently well-off”.

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.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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  1. Thank to Andy for this analysis, showing that this state of affairs is immoral and unjust. We have to be clear that fairness and equity underpins equality so that the equality agenda cannot be hijacked by unethical spokespeople arguing for privilege and power.

  2. Andy, while I agree with many of the points in your article, you didn’t mention that some parents don’t have a choice re private schools. If you live in Ranelagh as I do, the local secondary schools that take boys are all private eg Gonzaga, Sandford Park, High School Rathgar etc – so do you bus/drive your son to a school out of your home area? I have daughters so did not face this dilemma.

    Also, it can be difficult to get places in state schools in my area due to excess demand so parents have to get a place outside the area where the child won’t be educated with local children – or reluctantly opt for a local private school. I was fortunate that my three daughters got places in Muckross Park College Donnybrook which is a state school.

    If you remove the current financial supports to private schools before you ensure that there are adequate places in state schools for all those who want them, all you will do is to force many pupils out of those private schools and needing state school places that are not there!

    Personally I don’t know why some parents are so obsessed with private schools. Our state schools are excellent normally and your children meet a mix of other children which is important and part of the educational process. My local private girls school is Alexandra College and even if I had won the lotto, I would have opted for the state school.

    The statistics for entrants to third level from private schools probably do not reflect the fact that in some areas like South Dublin a large no of schools are private so you would expect a significant no of entrants from these private schools.

    1. Thanks Eoin. You are right that I should probably have placed more emphasis on the constrained nature of the choice facing some parents. Nonetheless, the figures indicate that the choice, on average, does yield pecuniary and other advantages in later life; I suspect that Alexandra graduates do better than most, again on average, when it comes to college entry and careers (though your point about the correlation between mid- to high-income areas and the preponderance of private schools might be a distorting factor here).. These outcomes, in any event, of course may be seen as somewhat narrow criteria for assessing ‘success’ and the question of getting a more rounded educational experience, which you highlight, is again one I might have focused on more. As for transitioning to a more equitable system, yes, that cannot be done overnight, but a phased process of redirecting support could certainly be initiated.

  3. Andy I forgive you for getting my name wrong in your response!

    You may know that Sandford Park School in Ranelagh was until recently a boys private school. It became co-educational recently though still private. Now perhaps changing to co-ed was on their agenda anyway but I heard that this change was due to them losing pupils as some parents could not pay the fees due to the recession, job losses etc and the school was getting a number of bad debts.

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