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School Textbooks

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 10 March 2022

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Questions (63)

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

63. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Education the status of the pilot free book scheme as announced in budget 2022; and when the scheme will be rolled out to all students. [13508/22]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Education)

The Minister will know that I have been raising the issue of a free schoolbooks scheme for many years now. I want to see one in this State that mirrors the one that is available in Northern Ireland, where no parent pays for a schoolbook. The Minister has initiated a pilot scheme. At what point can we expect to see a free schoolbook scheme in every school in the country at primary and secondary level?

The Department provides a book grant to all recognised primary and post-primary schools within the free education system in order to provide assistance for books, including book rental schemes. Under this scheme, my Department provided funding of €17.2 million in 2021 to all of these schools. Schools that are participating in the Department's DEIS programme receive an enhanced rate of book grant. Schoolbook rental schemes have an important role to play in reducing the cost of schoolbooks for parents and guardians. In order to support the establishment of book rental schemes, the Department provided €15.7 million seed capital in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to all primary schools. From the information available to the Department, approximately 96% of all primary schools and 69% of all post-primary schools currently operate a book rental scheme. It is a matter for the board of management of each individual school to decide on its own policy in relation to the use of book rent funding in the school. Schools are expected to adopt a cost-conscious approach to the selection of books for use in their classes. The current arrangement relies on the local knowledge of the school in order to ensure a fair allocation of funds to those students most in need.

Additional funding of €1 million was provided for in budget 2020 to provide free books in DEIS primary schools on a pilot basis. This funding was allocated to 102 DEIS primary schools for a pilot programme for the 2020-21 school year. This funding continued for the 2021-22 school year. The aim of this pilot is to provide free schoolbooks for students in the schools involved and to support these schools in eliminating the cost of schoolbooks for parents. It will continue to run for the 2021-22 school year. Its effectiveness and impact will be monitored and evaluated before any decision is made regarding its possible extension or continuation. It is my intention to complete this process as soon as possible.

Under circular 46/2013, DEIS primary schools receive a book grant of €21 per pupil, which is important to note as well. We have seen that the present pilot has been successful. Indeed, it is important to us that we would take the opportunity to evaluate its strengths, and consider where we might be able to improve, prior to taking any further action.

I can tell the Minister where the strengths are. She just has to look across the Border. Anybody from the North who comes to live in the South will tell her that it is ridiculous that they have to go scrambling around looking for a book list and trying to get schoolbooks for the new school year. They just do not think it is their role. All of these conversations at school community level about buying books and book rental schemes are replacing conversations about education or child development. There is an opportunity for the Minister. A sense of vision should creep into the Department of Education. It should say that it will work towards a situation where there are free schoolbooks for every child in the State. This would cost €20 million at primary level and €20 million at secondary level as well. The sort of administrative burden that has been placed on schools because of book rental programmes, whereby they have to chase down the book money and put an onus on parents to go and get the books, would all be eliminated by such an investment. Every school in the country and every child in the country would have schoolbooks as a right for free.

Again, I want to say very clearly that many of the points the Deputy makes are being acknowledged by the Department. There is a strong vision within the Department. Hence, we have a very significant roll-out of the pilot scheme. It is only right and proper that before we would advance, we would have a significant pilot in place and we would have an opportunity to evaluate it so we can see where we are at.

Equally, in terms of the breadth of vision in the Department, I am very pleased to say that there was a €20 million allocation in the budget this year to provide for free books or resources for reading within our schools. This is significant. It is the first time we have done such an initiative. It underpins the value of reading and access to the power of language and words in whatever type of book might appeal to a child, whether it is poetry, artistic or whatever the case might be. There is a strong commitment to the provision of supports for children’s textbooks or reading books in the school environment. This is being supported financially by the Department.

I will make a prediction for the Minister. In years to come, people will think it is ridiculous that we had this debate about children having free schoolbooks because it is such a basic provision. It is provided in so many European countries for free. You only have to go across the Border to witness it. I will ask the Minister a blunt question. When will the pilot be done and when will the expansion begin? It is clear to anybody who is listening to this debate that of course a pilot scheme whereby children get free schoolbooks will be successful. It will replace many conversations about books, acquiring books, book money and book rental schemes with conversations about child development and education. As I have said, all those other discussions should be happening. I have a simple question. When will the pilot end and when will the expansion begin?

I reiterate that the pilot runs for this school year. At that point, we will take a look at how the pilot has worked. In conjunction with that, we will roll out €20 million into our schools to make additional books and reading supports available in our schools. There is a significant book rental scheme. I know the Deputy has not taken the value of that on board. I think it is a significant resource for our schools. There is a book rental scheme also. It is operating-----

I know about it because the Labour Party introduced it.

No, I just want to conclude. We know that more than 96% of our primary schools are availing of the book rental scheme. That is a significant provision in our schools. It is actually being supported by the Department of Education from a financial point of view as well. I want to be clear that there is no single measure being offered within the schools. There is a multiplicity of measures and supports being provided. There is a wide breadth of vision in terms of how to support our families and our children going forward. The Department is providing for them. The current pilot will conclude, and we will take a look at how it has worked.

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