In towns, parishes, rural villages and townlands all over Ireland, parents are out selling tickets, doing fun runs, planning family days, helping with cake sales, engaging in dance contests, and attending social get-togethers of all sorts — and all in the name of raising money for much-needed educational equipment or, worse, building renovations.
I always write the story — even though it’s basically the same story over and over again but in a different town, village or parish.
Why do I do it? Because I know that very often the school is struggling financially and that these hard-working parents are giving up their free time to step in and help out.
We’re not talking pennies here, by the way — we’re talking targets of tens of thousands of euro fund-raised by mammies and daddies and teachers, and all merely to ensure that children are schooled in warm, comfortable, well-equipped classrooms.
Isn’t that supposed to be the government’s job, in this privileged, first-world land which prides itself on free primary education?
Yet we learned this week that Irish parents as a single entity are forking out some €46 million a year through a combination of fundraising and voluntary contributions to keep the country’s primary schools going.
This is according to research published by Grant Thornton, the body which carried out the study in 140 primary schools on behalf of the Catholic Primary School Managers Association.
The state gives a school an average of €46,000 to keep it running — but in reality that’s only half what it costs to ensure that essential services — heating, lighting, cleaning, the provision of equipment, printing, technology, school tours and insurance, not to mention repairs are provided — and the total actual cost of all of this is around €91,000.
It’s possible nobody was surprised by any of this with the stark exception of Education Minister Richard Bruton, who has not yet, it appears, seen the need to fulfil the promise made in the Programme for Government to increase funding to the primary school sector.
The capitation grant — a payment for each pupil attending the school, is supposed to cover the school’s running costs. This was reduced from €200 per child to €170 per child, seven or eight years ago, during the period the country was barely managing to hang onto the economic cliff by its bleeding, battered fingernails.
Since 2011, an incredible €110 million has just vanished from the budgets of primary schools due to these cuts in the capitation grant. So therefore, when it’s on a per-head basis, it’s purely a case of quantity counts — smaller schools are basically hit harder than larger ones when the grant is cut.
Schools get other grants too — for secretarial services and care-taking, for example, but the capitation grant is the biggest one, and it’s crucial to day to day operations.
The report by Grant Thornton also warned there was a risk that grants received for specific purposes, may be used by schools to address general funding shortfall.
Commenting on the issue, school principals were both grim and pragmatic — one said he has to limit the number of teams the school can afford to send to away matches, because of the expense of bus hire. Because of modern child protection regulations the tradition of parents helping out the school by driving children to away games is gone — so now the school has to pay up to €200 to hire a bus.
Another pull on an already over-stretched budget.
Schools are supposed to be places of teaching and learning — not hothouses for fundraising. And when you take into account that schools are not businesses — and that their boards of management are made up of willing volunteers, ordinary Joe Soaps, who may struggle with the array of financial and regulatory obligations for which they are responsible, you might start get some idea of the strain they’re under.
In other words, a board of management may not necessarily be all that familiar with budgeting, VAT, P45s and the rest — things that the government complacently seems to expect them to handle.
Sex education via the porn industry? Why the headlines? Sex education workers in Cork city told me this long ago. They’re out in the schools — primary and second-level — talking to the kids and they told me long ago that internet porn was routinely being used by children and young teenagers to learn about sex.
Well, now. One can only shudder at the mindsets and attitudes to women and sex being nurtured by regular viewings of hard-core online porn.
Think about the reverberations of the Belfast Rape trial, especially in terms of the opinions expressed about young women. Anyone who works in the area of sex education will tell you that the issue of sexual consent amongst young people is still a ‘grey’ area, despite all the campaigns and the publicity around this issue.
We can only hope that this highly publicised overhaul of sex education in Ireland — the first such review in 20 years — is not coming way too late.