Education (Regulation of Voluntary Contributions in Schools) Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend section 12 of the Education Act 1998 and to make provision whereby the Minister for Education and Skills shall make regulations governing the voluntary contributions to recognised schools and to provide for the publication of details of the receipt and use of voluntary contributions in the annual accounts and records of schools.

This short and simple Bill seeks to amend the Education Act 1998 by providing that the Minister will regulate the circumstances in which schools may seek voluntary contributions. It also provides that the receipt and expenditure of voluntary contributions shall be recorded in the annual financial records of schools. This is in keeping with recommendations made by the cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection in 2013 in its report on tackling back to school costs.

The practice of schools seeking voluntary contributions has become widespread in recent years. A recent study by Barnardos showed 66% of parents of children at primary school and 79% of parents of children at secondary school are requested to pay a voluntary contribution. The average contribution is between €100 and €150 per child and the specific amount is often stipulated on the same form as the child’s enrolment information.

The same report by Barnardos stated the majority of schools pursue parents who do not pay their voluntary contribution. In some cases, reminders are sent by email, text or letters with some schools even sending reminders of requests for payment through children. The study stated in some cases the children of parents who refuse to make voluntary contributions are denied access to facilities such as lockers until the money is paid. Parents reported feeling pressured and embarrassed into paying these contributions on an annual basis.

It is clear from this study and, indeed, from the numerous stories I have heard from parents that the current practice is far from being voluntary and makes a mockery of our so-called free education system. I fully accept the austerity policies of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have had a significant impact on schools. I know from my time as a school principal that there were significant and unnecessary cuts. Capitation rates have been slashed by 11% since 2008. This has led to a massive shortfall and schools being put under tremendous pressure. Schools are struggling to pay for essential basic services such as lighting and heat. They are relying on the generosity and goodwill of parents to make up the shortfall in funding to meet these basic costs.

However, it should not have to be parents and children who pay the price for bad government policy that has refused to tackle this issue. In many cases, parents and children simply do not have the means to make these levels of contributions to schools. An Irish League of Credit Unions survey states 31% of parents get into debt to cover back to school costs. Figures have shown that the rate of children experiencing consistent poverty has almost doubled between 2008 and 2015.

This Bill seeks to strike a balance between the right of schools to accept voluntary contributions to make up the shortfall in funding and the realities for many parents who simply cannot afford them. The Bill states schools must clearly state that any contribution by parents to the operating costs of the school is voluntary and there is no obligation on parents to provide such a contribution. It seeks to ensure schools may only contact a parent about voluntary contributions once per school year and may not make further contact in any form to request payment.

The Bill seeks to ensure no child will be treated differently in terms of access to school facilities as result of the fact his or her parents chose not to make a contribution to the school. It also seeks to effectively end the seeking of voluntary contributions once capitation levels are restored to adequate levels by the Government. I have called on the Minister several times to ensure capitation levels are restored as soon as possible. The Bill further provides the receipt and expenditure of voluntary contributions will be published in the annual accounts of the school.

The Bill makes a genuine attempt to address an issue that is of fundamental concern to parents. I commend it to the House.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.