5,000 families sought help from SVP in a year
A record number of families have appealed to St Vincent de Paul (SVP) for help with back-to-school costs this year.
More than 5,000 families - many of them the working poor - contacted the Catholic charity last month, seeking help paying food and utility bills after back-to-school expenses left them struggling.
Although the Department of Social Protection provides a Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance (BSCFA) for low-income families, many of those turning to the SVP for help earn just above the means-tested threshold, an SVP spokesman told the Herald.
"One person I know missed it by just €15," he said.
Many of the callers cited the huge cost of so-called "voluntary contributions" to schools, which are typically between €100 and €150, as a big ask they can ill afford.
The fees are typically for school books, meals and trips.
"Voluntary contributions are a big problem for a lot of people," he said.
SVP's Tricia Keilthy added: "Back-to-school this week has been a really exciting time for lots of children and their parents.
"But for many low income and struggling households, the preparation for the new school year has been a huge source of stress and anxiety, with the prospect of further requests throughout the year for contributions for education, exam and extra-curricular expenses.
"As well as the ordinary costs of school, some of the emerging issues that we see include the huge costs of Transition Year registration and trips, and an increasing requirement for expensive digital devices."
The charity has urged Education Minister Richard Bruton to start to make free education a reality, with proper funding for schools and additional support for parents.
Despite an increase in the BSCFA this year, the SVP said the payments were still below 2011 levels, while capitation grants have also been cut since 2010.
As part of its 2018 pre-Budget submission, the charity urged the Government to increase funding for its School Book Rental Scheme by €15m this year, while implementing an entirely free school book scheme over the next five years.
It also wants the Government to end the practice of voluntary contributions, by injecting an additional €35m into school budgets, along with an additional €20m to fund classroom resources.
Other recommendations include making the Child Benefit available to parents of children over the age of 18, but who are in secondary school, to reflect the higher educational costs of families with adolescents.
The charity is also urging the Government to restore the BSCFA to 2011 levels, which translates to €305 for children over the age of 12 and €200 for children under 12.