Sunday, August 23, 2009

Irish Myths and Legends Part 1: Free Education

By Jennifer O’Connell

I am looking for a publisher for my new book of Irish myths and legends. Chapter One will be entitled, ‘The Free Education System’.

In fact, what we have in this country is a two tier education system: expensive, and eye-wateringly expensive. According to a recent survey by Bank of Ireland Life, it now costs an astounding €70,000 to educate a child to graduation level in our free education system.

If my two children are anything to go by, this figure is probably on the conservative side. It is still some years before I deposit them, teary-eyed (mine, probably), on their first day at Junior Infants, but they’ve already cost me a small fortune in school fees.

Over the last couple of years, I have forked out several hundred euro in ‘pre-enrolment’ fees – or what Superquinn suppliers might call ‘hello money’ – to get their names down on the waiting lists of several fee-paying secondary schools in our new area, after friends warned me that, if I didn’t get on with it, I could be facing into 13 years of trying to explain the difference between stratocumulus and cirrocumulus cloud formations to the bored audience around my kitchen table.

Not that this practice of paying hello money guarantees them a place in any of these expensive private schools: I asked about that and was told that, at 19 months and a few weeks old respectively, they were already ‘a bit late’ and that I should phone back in 2017.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not mere snobbery on my part. I am all for free education – I just haven’t had much luck tracking it down. The few non-fee paying secondary schools in my area of South Dublin tend to operate arbitrary and confusing admissions policy, mostly based on a combination of where they live, where they go to primary school, whether they have siblings in the school, old-fashioned luck, brass neck and/or the parents’ ability to withstand a night queuing in the cold.

There are plenty of free primary schools of whose services I hope to avail, but their entry procedures are so labyrinthine that I suspect it’s only a matter of time before someone starts offering a night class in understanding them.

Then there’s that little ‘free’. They are free in the sense that they don’t charge fees. But in common with at least three quarters of schools in the country, they do request parents to make ‘voluntary contributions’ of anywhere between €75 and, in the case of one primary school in Naas, €2,000 annually.

That’s before the cost of books (€180), lunch (€343), uniforms (€224) and ferrying them to and from school (€277), according to the Bank of Ireland survey.

In a recent survey by the National Parents Council Primary (NPC) and the Irish Primary Principal’s Network (IPPN), three quarters of parents said they had been asked for a voluntary contribution of an average of, according to the BOI findings, €173 to their children’s school every year. One in three said they had difficulty paying it, or weren’t able to pay it at all. Almost half of the parents surveyed said that, despite the ostensibly ‘voluntary’ nature of the contribution, they felt ‘pressurised’ to pay it.

But according to Sean Cottrell of the IPPN, schools don’t like asking for the contribution any more than parents like paying it. “If the service is not to be free, then at least we should be honest about it and impose a levy or charge openly on parents for their children to attend school. Pretending that education is free and perpetuating this myth while parents contribute millions to keep the doors open and the lights on is a national disgrace.”

With further education cuts announced in the November Budget and more still proposed in the Bord Snip report, which could result in the loss of up to 1,000 teaching jobs at second level – or 2 or 3 teachers from every secondary school in the country - the burden of making up the difference is inevitably going to fall even harder on the shoulders of parents.

Three quarters of the 20 schools recently surveyed by the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) indicated that they would be increasing their ‘voluntary contributions’ from September, and 85 per cent said they would be charging for specific activities. Three quarters also said they would be cutting back on the number of extra curricular activities they offer.

Frustratingly, though we are increasingly expected to pick up the tab for our children’s education, we have very little way of measuring objectively how effective it is – at least, not until they get their Leaving Cert results – and even less hope of identifying any shortcomings we do identify.

The recommendation by the IPPN that the whole process be regularised so that parents are charged a uniform levy for their children to attend school seems sensible – and might actually prove more palatable to parents that the current, arbitrary system, especially if it also introduced some measure of quality control.

There is a novel new approach currently being explored in the United States, which might prove an innovative solution for Ireland - in the unlikely event the unions were ever to give it their backing.

In the US, President Obama has backed suggestions for a move away from compensating teachers based on their level of education, towards bonuses based on the performances of their charges.

Here, it could be adapted to work like this. Once teacher numbers have been culled in line with the latest cutbacks, the government takes over the full, reduced cost of running schools, and sets the capitations grants it pays to schools at more realistic levels.

Parents pay a levy of, say, €200 per annum, for their children to attend state-run schools – parents who have difficulty paying it could apply, as in the case of bin charges, to have it waived. ‘Voluntary contributions’ are banned, and the money collected from the levy goes into a fund towards improving teachers’ pay.

However, these pay increases are not delivered across the board, but as a series of performance-related bonuses. The bonuses wouldn’t be based purely on results, but on a combination of results, parent feedback, and work outside school hours - supervising extra-curricular activity and so on. With newer, younger and more energetic teachers likely to lose their jobs first, the need to inject some new life and enthusiasm into the ravaged education system which will be left behind seems ever more urgent.

We are particularly gifted at euphemisms in this country. “Free education system” is one of our more brilliant creations.


  1. I'm an O'Connell too :D I'm supposed to find myths linking to my name, I was wondering if there are any Irish myths to do with O'Connells? Irish pride ;)