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Saturday 10 December 2016

Carol Hunt: Schools shame us parents into making 'voluntary' payments

Like many parents of children we were stretched once again this summer to pay out for Irish college, sports camps, drama and other activities during the holidays.
Like many parents of children we were stretched once again this summer to pay out for Irish college, sports camps, drama and other activities during the holidays.

"When I use a word", said Humpty Dumpty, "it means just what I chose it to mean, neither more nor less".

Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass isn't a book usually studied by our primary or secondary students but some Irish schools seem very au-fait with Mr Dumpty's definition of what a word should mean.

How else can a 'voluntary donation' become a financial burden to cash-strapped parents?

A cost that is, in many of our schools, neither voluntary, nor a donation, but a fixed amount which must be paid before children are allowed register for the next school year? Obviously these words have changed their meanings since I was in school.

Like many parents of children we were stretched once again this summer to pay out for Irish college, sports camps, drama and other activities during the holidays.

Unlike years ago, when most mothers worked within the home, today's couples need two incomes to pay the mortgage and - very unfairly in my kids' view - social services just won't let us leave them home alone to fend for themselves.

Which was why, every week this summer, when my eldest asked if we had gotten her 2014-15 school report, we had to tell her we just didn't have the extra cash.

By last week, she was starting to panic. "You know I can't even register for September if you don't pay the money over", she wailed.

Confused? It's hardly surprising. Why would we need to pay for a school report? Why can she not register unless we've handed over a contribution to the school?

Well, officially, of course, we don't have to. Legally, most definitely, we don't have to.

But many Irish schools today, who are suffering hugely from cutbacks, lack of funds and the continued impact of the years of austerity, embarrass parents into coughing up the 'voluntary' contribution before they will release a child's school report or enrol them for the following year.

Inadequate

The capitation fees given by the state are totally inadequate - they have dropped by 11pc in the past few years - and the bottom line is that the schools have to get the extra cash from the parents.

Of course, no child can be denied their report or admittance to our (supposedly free) non-fee paying schools - and no child is. That would be immoral and illegal and it certainly isn't done.

But, and it's a massive 'but', in many schools parents are sent letters telling them -in no uncertain terms - exactly what the cost of the 'voluntary donation' is, on top of myriad other costs.

If, the parents are told, they have a difficulty paying the amount, they can make an appointment to discuss the issue with the secretary or principal.

This is not, by any definition, a 'voluntary donation'. Many parents would rather go without essentials than suffer the embarrassment - to themselves and their children - of having to present themselves, cap in hand, at the school office.

It all smacks of the old tradition of church contributions being read from the altar - those who hadn't contributed or had only a little to give, were publicly shamed.

Lest you think that I'm just an aggrieved parent who was forced to cough up the cash this week (which I am), and I'm exaggerating the problem, the children's charity Barnardo's say that the contribution is anything but voluntary, with schools often using strong-arm tactics to get money.

This is on top of the cost of uniforms and constantly changing textbooks, which all add to a massive burden on parents at the beginning of each school year.

Either we have free education or we don't. The system we currently have - of under-resourced schools forced to embarrass parents into coughing up cash they don't have - isn't fit for purpose.

A report by the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection, in 2013, advised that "the practice of requesting "voluntary" contributions should be greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited".

Instead it's getting much worse and parents are really suffering. Words, obviously, mean nothing anymore.

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