I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, to the Chamber. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which we first proposed a year ago, and I am delighted the Labour Party group has facilitated its Second Stage.
It is a free education Bill. What is there to oppose about that? Many Senators would not necessarily understand the importance of free education. For some people in society and in these Houses, education is something that can be bought but it should not be that way. Our Constitution specifically states primary education is free as a constitutional right but we have not vindicated that right. We in the Labour Party have outlined a number of initiatives about how that right should be vindicated. We have proposed a free book scheme, where children in the Republic of Ireland would be able to avail of schoolbooks just as children in Northern Ireland avail of them for free. Remarkably, we are the ones who are supposed to live in a Republic, as opposed to the children in Northern Ireland, but we do not have free education.
The point of the Bill is to remind all of us that the relationship between a parent or child and the school the child attends should not be financial. It should be one of growth, beauty, education and learning, which should be all one speaks about in the corridors of a school with a parent, student or child. Far too often, however, the letters that are sent home from a school to a parent via a student request a voluntary contribution. If the parent is not in a position to provide the so-called voluntary contribution, the interaction between that parent and the school will become financial, while the likelihood that he or she will engage in school activities will be inhibited. If one feels one does not have the money to give a voluntary contribution, is one less or more likely to attend the parent-teacher meeting, where one will be reminded of that fact? Is one less or more likely to attend a football match or a school concert, or to engage at the school gate with a teacher or a principal who will tell the parents, "By the way, I hope you saw that note we sent home about the voluntary contribution."
In a fully functioning democracy that values education, we would not have voluntary contributions. There are many countries in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, which consider it unbelievable there would be a fundraiser for a school. Is that not what taxes are for? Many will say that without voluntary contributions, the lights cannot be kept on, the school cannot be heated and school activities cannot function properly. Is that not the conversation we should have, namely, about the proper State funding of our school system? Some say the Bill will cost €45 million. Let us find the €45 million, in that case. Let us not speak in terms of tax cuts but rather about proper provision of education for children.
As many people may know, I used to teach and was principal of a school in a disadvantaged part of this city. We were not in the position to ask anybody for a voluntary contribution, nor to ask anybody for a contribution at all. We were not in the position to hold fundraisers that would raise between €40,000 and €50,000, as happens in other parts of the city, because the parents did not have the money. Is that the kind of education system we want to stand over, where those who can provide more receive more, where their children receive more, where their schools receive more, while those who cannot provide the same do not receive the same? Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, does not plug the gap.
The Bill is not trying to prevent fundraisers. They will still be able to be held, with the morale-boosting cake sale and the table quiz, where funds can be raised for general school activities if the school so wishes. A contribution, however, will not be able to be linked to a school activity. The school will not be able to say that if parents do not give money, their children cannot participate, have a locker, take part in a school trip, or avail of whatever resources should be available to every child. We have tried, as have many Governments, to work with school patrons and boards of management to lessen the practice of sending voluntary contribution letters, but it is not working. We have to ban them, therefore, by bringing in legislation that bans the linkage of contributions to school activities. I return to the conversations that parents and students will have about their relationship with the school. How humiliating is it for a child if a teacher or principal surreptitiously identifies him or her in a class and gives the child a little note for his or her mammy? The child will know, as will the parent, that the reason the note has been given to him or her is that the parent has not had the capability to give the voluntary contribution, which can be anything in the region of €85, €150 or €200.
The school will say that without the voluntary contribution, the school cannot be kept alive. That is the conversation the school needs to have with the State and the Department of Education and Skills, which need to be real about the day-to-day running of schools. The Department does not want to have that conversation, however, and it would prefer if it was not its responsibility at all. It would prefer the school managers to run the schools and the boards of management to do what they will, while the Department merely provides the curriculum and pays the teachers. I do not agree with that. We need a State education system which we need the Department to take seriously and fund. That is why we pay our taxes. That is what a fair, transparent and progressive taxation system is all about, and schools should not ask for parents to foot the bill a second time.
Fundamentally, what we are trying to achieve is not to stop fundraising or contributions if somebody wants to contribute to a school. Rather, it is intended to stop the practice of linking financial contributions to school activities and of so-called voluntary contributions because they are not voluntary.
What does the aspiration or vision of free education mean? Free education means one does not have to pay for one's books. Free education means one does not have to pay for the school trip. Free education means one is not asked repeatedly for money for arts supplies. Free education means one does not have to pay for the school meal. Free education means one does not have to pay for school transport. This stuff has to be paid for but this is the choice that we have to make in Irish society. Do we believe in a tax cutting regime which individualises everything, which benefits the rich more and which entrenches inequality or do we believe in the provision of public services for everybody? Please do not tell me about the schemes we have in disadvantaged schools, etc. More than one disadvantaged child will be found in every single school in this land as will overlapping, entrenched, intergenerational disadvantage and these are still the children who get the letter home asking for a so called voluntary contribution. It is humiliating, it is undermining, it is embarrassing and it is completely unnecessary in one of the richest countries in Europe.
I appreciate the Government is not opposing the Bill. What we can achieve this evening is that we stand fast to that republican ideal of free education. It is not something I just came up with, it is entrenched in the Constitution of the land. Let us vindicate that right, let us make education free and let us break this chain that drags down so many parents at the school gate, that they will not go past it because they do not have the money. It is not because there is a fee involved in sending one's child to a school in the vast majority of cases. They will not pass the school gate because somebody will ask them an awkward question about the voluntary contribution and the few quid. They will ask parents what is €85 when they are providing education but education is the great leveller and the great liberator. It is the one thing that frees more people from poverty than anything else, not because it turns people into economic units so they can compete in the job market but because it frees the mind. It opens people up to beauty, to poetry and to language and to know the value of love and interpersonal relationships.
Education is everything and a price tag cannot be put on it but in far too many circumstances, there are far too many families who have an envelope in September that they cannot fill. Let us take away that conversation. Let us make the conversations at the school gate about education and about beauty, language, poetry, aspiration and the matters that make the hair stand on the back of the neck. Let us not make it about an envelope and a contribution. Let us make it purely and simply about education.