Free Education: A Really Modest Proposal

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Sometimes a proposal comes along that is so sensible and so modest that you wonder why it doesn’t feature high up the public agenda.  Take the proposal made recently by Barnardos:  at a very small cost the state could actually provide what it is constitutionally mandated to do:

‘Article 42.4:  The State shall provide for free primary education  . . . ‘

In its briefing, Providing Free Education for all Schoolchildren, Barnardos proposes that primary and secondary education be made free. They first outline the costs of education that are not covered under the current system, costs that are borne by families.

  • School books:  The cost of schoolbooks is estimated at €60 million.  However, the School Book Scheme only receives a subsidy of €15 million – leaving parents to pay out the rest.
  • Voluntary contributions:  Based on the Barnardos School Cost Survey 2014, parents are paying €89 million in voluntary contributions and €38.5 million for classroom resources.
  • School transport:  For a primary pupil availing of school transport, parents pay €100.  This rises to €350 for secondary pupils.  In total, parents are paying €27 million to transport their children to school.
  • Capitation grants:  these grants paid to schools on a per pupil basis have been cut by 15 percent since 2010 – or €35 million.

So how much would it cost to make education free?  Here are Barnardos’ estimates.

Barnardos

Providing the resources to ensure free primary education would cost €103 million; for secondary education, €127 million.  The total is €230 million.

Barnardos is proposing that in 2016, the centenary of that document that mentioned something about cherishing the children, the Government make primary education free.  Free secondary education would be phased in over three years.

€100 million for free primary education; this may seem like a big number but it comes to 0.05 percent of GDP, hardly an onerous cost.  Contrast this with the Government’s intention to pursue tax cuts.  The ESRI projects that a €100 million would fund a cut of 0.33 percent in the standard USC rate (this is equivalent to €1 per week for an average income earner).   A far better use of this money would be to provide free primary education.

While the free provision of essential services is always presented as a cost, we know that the €100 million to make primary education free is not the final cost to the Government.  This money doesn’t just disappear down some fiscal black hole.  If parents don’t have to pay €20 million for schoolbooks or over €60 million for voluntary contributions and classroom resources, that’s money available to spend in the consumer economy, pouring into the tills and cash registers of shops all around the country.  You could call free education a mini business expansion scheme.

I’d like to throw in a suggestion of my own.  Why don’t we extend the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance to all children?  The Allowance is worth €100 for each child aged between 4 and 11 years and €200 for each child aged between 12 and 22 years (children between 18 and 22 must be in full-time secondary education).

Currently, it is means-tested:  you must be on a social protection payment, in receipt of Family Income Supplement or Back to Work Family Dividend or on an approved employment scheme.   In broad terms, the income threshold for eligibility is €29,300 for households with one child (€21,300 for lone parents); €30,900 with two children (€22,900), and €1,550 for each additional child.

These thresholds are very low and tens of thousands of households just above the thresholds are not eligible, even though they face the same constraints on living standards.

The Back to School allowance could be folded into the Child Benefit system; the additional payment would be made to all age-eligible children in September.  This would reduce administrative costs and benefit all households.  This universality would build on the social solidarity of Child Benefit, consistent with the universality of free primary and secondary education.  It would also start to acknowledge age-related costs; for instance, teenagers are more expensive than young children.

My own back-of-the-envelope cost estimate would be €70 million.  This is the same cost as raising overall Child Benefit by €5 per month.

I emphasis, this is my own suggestion; Barnardos’ proposals focused on providing free primary and secondary education – proposals which should be prioritised.

It can only be hoped that someone in Government buildings is listening and reading and reasoning.  It can also be hoped that a broad coalition of political, economic and social constituencies will take up Barnardos’ proposals and make them a central plank for Budget 2016 and beyond.

Free primary education?  What a wonderful idea.  Constitutionally mandated nearly 80 years ago and still waiting to be made a reality.

We shouldn’t have to wait much longer.

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