Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Back-to-school costs 'too high'

Parents are to be given a say on school uniform policies

Giving parents a say on school uniform policies does not go far enough in driving down overall back-to-school costs, it has been claimed.

The National Parents Council for post-primary children said it welcomes attempts by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to reduce the burden on hard-pressed families.

But spokeswoman Lynda O'Shea argued that parents are still forced to fork out for expensive books and other materials.

"I would expect most parents to react positively to this, but the overall costs still remain high," Ms O'Shea said.

"With the change in the economy, some parents just don't have the money so we need to keep moving forward and find other areas to cut costs."

She said the minister's plans to ballot parents on whether their children should wear uniforms and if so, what they should be like, are "a work in progress".

She suggested that efforts also be made to strike deals with publishers to bring down the costs of school books.

Ms O'Shea added that school crests should be completely eliminated from all school uniforms - even without a ballot - to guarantee that parents need only buy generic jumpers, skirts and trousers.

Crested primary school jumpers can retail between 28 and 40 euro, and secondary jumpers from 38 to 50, she said.

"For families that have maybe three or four kids in school at once, this is a lot of money to have to come up with every one or two years," she said.

The education minister announced plans today to consult with parents on uniforms from the next new school year.

They will be balloted on whether they want a school uniform. If they opt for a uniform, they will be asked if they want trousers, jumpers, blouses, shirts and skirts, and in what colours - from selections available in the large retail chains.

They will then be asked if they want a school blazer, a school crest on garments and what type.

Mr Quinn said empowering parents to decide the uniform policy is the most effective way to tackle back-to-school costs.

"I have consistently said that schools should listen to the parents on this matter since it is parents who incur the costs arising from the decisions that schools make," Mr Quinn said.

His department will issue a template questionnaire to schools by the end of this month, and schools are expected to complete the ballots by the end of February.

Elsewhere, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) warned of the dangers of parents voting in favour of no uniform at all.

It also argued that schools that do not have crested uniforms currently should not have to conduct a ballot.

"Uniforms can play a role in protecting children from external pressures to dress according to the latest trends," the union said.

"By keeping pester power out of school dress codes, uniforms are a significant cost saving to parents. School uniforms are less expensive and easier to manage than having different outfits."

It described school uniforms as a "safety net" for pupils who might otherwise suffer from bullying.

Meanwhile, the National Parents Council for primary children welcomed the Government move.

Education and Training Boards Ireland general secretary Michael Moriarty also praised the minister's decision to give parents a greater say.

"It is important that parents are consulted on school policies that involve a cost to household budgets," he said.

"The purchasing of school uniforms constitutes a significant annual expense in the majority of homes so school engagement with parents on this issue will hopefully serve to empower parents in relation this considerable annual expenditure."

St Vincent de Paul said it was pleased the Government is now involving parents in the decision-making process at schools.

Audry Deane, social justice and policy officer at the charity, said the minister's commitment to reducing school costs was now clear.

But she added further issues need to be addressed.

"We will continue to lobby for practical solutions to reducing school costs, for example school tours, school equipment as well as school books and electronic tablets," Ms Deane said.

"We are fearful that the explosion in ebooks and tablets is unregulated and needlessly expensive, which disadvantages those who cannot afford such devices."

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