Education (Voluntary Contributions) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to make provision whereby the Minister for Education shall make regulations governing the collection by schools of voluntary contributions from parents/guardians; to provide for the publication of the total monies collected annually and a detailed expenditure of those monies by schools; and for those purposes to amend the Education Act 1998.

Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama, le trí nóiméad a bheith agam agus dhá nóiméad leis an Teachta Carthy. Every year, my office and every other Deputy's office are contacted by families who have received a letter from a school asking for €200, €300 or €400. These letters are sent because we have an education system that is underfunded. While we have, ostensibly, free primary and secondary education in this State, the reality is that our schools are underfunded to such an extent that they have no choice but to fundraise extensively throughout the year. Unfortunately, management in many schools believe they have no option but to seek voluntary contributions. These voluntary contributions are anything but voluntary and parents are often put under significant pressure.

The Bill seeks to ensure that no child is placed at a disadvantage because his or her parents or family cannot afford the voluntary contribution. There are examples of children being denied a locker or access to extracurricular activity, stigmatised and disadvantaged in other ways. That is unacceptable because we decided decades ago, as a society and a State, that every child should have the opportunity to access education at primary and secondary level for free. This practice profoundly undermines that principle.

The myth of free education in this State is made very clear, not only in this way but in the costs of schoolbooks, uniforms, transport, iPads in some cases and many other costs. A survey carried out by the Irish League of Credit Unions found that two thirds of families find covering the costs of returning to school to be a very significant burden, with just under one quarter of families going into debt to pay back-to-school costs and 21% having debts of over €500. One of the most significant of these costs is the voluntary contribution. Families are asked to pay €200, €300 or even €400 per child and there are probably instances of amounts even higher than that being sought. These contributions can create significant pressures. Schools mainly seek this payment in September when parents have already expended a significant amount of money on books, uniforms and many other costs.

To eliminate voluntary contributions we need to eliminate the need for them. We have outlined in the Bill a roadmap. We first identify what the gap is. This involves ensuring schools account for all of the voluntary contributions they ask for and receive and what they spend them on, and this account is lodged with the Department.

We have also proposed that the Comptroller and Auditor General be responsible for identifying the unmet need. This unmet need is significant. According to a survey carried out about two years ago by the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, CPSMA, the unmet need met by parents amounts to approximately €40 million. This unmet need is, therefore, significant. We need to identify what the gap is and fill it. Once that has been done, we need to ban voluntary contributions and bring the practice to an end. We cannot do that until the gap is filled. We recognise and accept that. Schools often do not want to ask for these contributions but believe they have to because they are so profoundly underfunded. However, when we reach that point, the practice should be brought to an end. There should be no place for it. If we are talking about having free at the point of access primary and secondary education, schools should be properly funded and should not have to go cap in hand to parents.

This simple Bill is a genuine attempt to address an issue that is of fundamental concern to parents and families. I hope my colleagues from all parties and none will support it and bring an end to the pressure voluntary contributions place on families.

This is the first legislation to which I have had the honour of putting my name. I commend it to the House. This is the time of year when many families, particularly those with school-going children, find themselves under financial stress, with many traditionally receiving home and motor tax insurance renewal documents at this time. People are already planning for the Christmas period. Many of these families are floored when they receive a letter from their local school requesting, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire noted, hundreds of euro in so-called voluntary contributions. These contributions are requested because schools believe they need to fundraise in such a manner to simply keep the lights on. We heard over the Covid period that some schools were unable to provide hot water for children to wash their hands.

The Bill seeks to address the undue stress parents are being put under. It will oblige schools to make apparent that these contributions are indeed voluntary and make them truly voluntary by ceasing the practice of children being excluded from some activities as a result of a parent’s inability to pay, as unfortunately happens. It will prevent schools from contacting parents more than once a year seeking such contributions and ensure voluntary contributions are truly voluntary in the interim, while setting out - this is crucially important - a pathway to end the practice once and for all by ensuring

the Government adequately and appropriately funds our schools.

Is the Bill being 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.