I thank Senator Gallagher. I will make a few comments myself.
The story the witnesses all painted is compelling and it is clear we cannot ignore the existing position on funding in the schools. I would also make the point that it is difficult on schools and they do not willingly put pressure on parents and children. Listening to Senator Ruane, I was moved by what would be perceived as nearly a form of intimidation or bullying within a classroom situation with a teacher. That is regrettable and it should not happen. In my experience, most schools and teachers are understanding. I can understand that it is difficult for a parent to approach a school, because of pride and shame, to say he or she is in a difficult situation but my understanding is that when parents make such an approach - I have been the teacher in such a situation - schools are understanding and will try to put another solution in place. As Mr. Mulconry stated, parents are paying €46 million to open the doors, turn on the lights and keep the water running and that is essentially a big gap that needs to be filled, and it should not be there.
It struck me too, when we were talking about stress in the home and parents cowering when the moneylenders come, that powerful research has been done in this regard because I had looked at it previously. Often we speak in this committee about improving mental health in education, about positive mental health for both children and the teachers and about promoting and developing resilience and confidence in early childhood when that is really important. The most important force shaping the development of resilience, however, turns out to be a surprising one and that is stress. Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity in research how severe stress in childhood - doctors sometimes call this toxic stress - leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop, and, significantly, the way they function in school. Children living in poverty experience such toxic stress more than others because they pick up on the stress within a home where their parents or parent, as the case may be, are financially strapped and desperately trying to find the money to ensure the child has a positive experience in school. The vast majority of parents want their children to have such a positive experience and not to be singled out. All must acknowledge, as members have here, that education is a critical enabler to move children and families from social exclusion and poverty, particularly in vulnerable situations such as my colleague, Deputy Catherine Martin, outlined in terms of children who are in direct provision and children who are homeless. We must do better.
In terms of the recurring themes from all the opening statements and from the members here, the key issues are to seek an increase in funding for the book rental scheme and to encourage and support its roll-out. As for workbooks, I worked with workbooks as a teacher but the children filled them in with pencil, they were all rubbed out and they were handed on to the next child. As I have stated here, I am the eldest of 11. In our family, that certainly was something that was done, when the schoolbooks did not change, to be handed on. We used pencil, not pen. The capitation grant is key. In respect of the many worthwhile recommendations the witnesses make, the capitation grant at least needs to be increased to 2010 levels. That is the first step that we need to take.
I note from surveys that transition year fees can cost up to €900 per child. Transition year, when it is done properly as there are gaps within it as well, is an important and formative experience for students. In many ways, it could be improved. Certainly, it is wrong to have parents paying up to €1,000 to ensure their children have a positive experience from transition year.
The pressure that parents and schools are under is wrong. Yesterday, we were looking at the challenges facing principals, in this instance, teaching principals. The primary purpose of principals is as leaders of education but when one considers all their other challenges, I note fundraising takes principals, teachers and the boards of management away from their core responsibility in a significant way. It is simply not good enough that schools still have to do this and that boards of management and parents' councils are putting their time into this. That undoubtedly will feature strongly in our report.
Some other practical measures have been recommended, for example, the reduction of 23% VAT on ebooks. It is ridiculous that there is no VAT on schoolbooks but 23% VAT on ebooks.
I was interested in what the Irish League of Credit Unions was talking about with regard to the personal microcredit scheme. I have raised this with the Taoiseach in the Chamber. Reading the statistics on what moneylenders charge, the shocking part is that there is a legal entitlement to moneylenders to charge 86% in many cases. I raised it in the Dáil Chamber and believe that should be capped. Portarlington was a pilot area for the personal microcredit scheme. I checked with them and they felt it worked well. The credit union in Naas and Newbridge has recently taken that on. That will be an incredible support, with whatever collaboration is needed between the credit union movement and Government to support that and encourage parents who have to go for loans. The Department certainly can and should help with the capitation grant etc. but there will always be extra costs so parents may always be, sadly, in the position of having to borrow some small amount, but let us make it as small as possible. They should be able to do it in a way in which they are not completely penalised or having to cower at home when the moneylender knocks on the door.
The core cost of running schools should be met. I know anecdotally of children who are asked to bring toilet rolls to school because schools cannot afford to have toilet roll. It is unfair on the school, the teachers, the children and the parents. I do not have any particular questions because everything that the witnesses have said is important.
A final comment relates to the children whom we are all fighting for, who are at the forefront of our minds today and yesterday, and who are starting back to school or who will be. These children are all vulnerable, some more than others, and they depend on the adults whom they know in their lives to try to help to make their lives easier and better in many cases. The adults whom they know are primarily their immediate family and people such as health workers, teachers and gardaí. They also depend on thousands of people to make their lives easier, people whom they will never know and never meet. They are the people who make decisions every day that impact on the well-being, opportunities and potential of the children. They are people who touch their lives directly and indirectly. Nowhere do they depend more on such adults whom they will never meet than in the education system. Those adults are within the school that they attend but it also includes all of the witnesses and us, both the witnesses fighting for those children and their opportunities, us as members of this committee and as legislators, and those who will put a report together and make recommendations to the Minister and the Department. It is up to us in this committee to do our best to make sure that every child has the best educational experience possible and to ensure that, as it were, money does not stand in their way. As Chair of this committee, that is my commitment to the witnesses and members of the committee.
I will go back to those who may wish to respond to or comment on both questions and comments that members have made. If there is a supplementary from members, I will take that.