Helping hand | 

Free textbooks, smaller classes and extra school bus places expected in Budget

Extra funding to allow thousands of pupils to regain their seat on the school bus this year is also on the cards.

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Parents can look forward to free books for their children at primary level. Photo: Giordano Aita


All primary pupils will get free schoolbooks every year from next September, in a historic move to eliminate this annual cost for parents.

A further reduction in primary school class sizes will also be announced in tomorrow’s Budget, according to Government sources.

Extra funding to allow thousands of pupils to regain their seat on the school bus this year is also on the cards.

A boost in spending on special education will lead to the creation of 370 more classes – 234 in primary, 136 in secondary – for pupils with additional needs next September.

The recruitment of more special educational needs officers (SENOs) to help parents ensure that a child with special needs receives the supports to which they are entitled has also been agreed.

As well as extra SENOs, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) will receive funding for more administrative staff to allow it to improve its service to families and schools.

Overall, NCSE annual funding is expected to almost double next year, with an injection of almost €13m, the biggest increase ever in its budget.

As with other parts of society and the economy, schools are also in line for higher capitation grants to meet spiralling bills.

Under the free books initiative, schools will receive grants to bulk-buy and distribute books, and associated workbooks, on an annual basis.

It will save parents an average of €110 per child, in today’s terms, while the overall cost to the State will be about €47m a year.

Currently, there is a pilot, free books programme for schools in disadvantaged areas, while all other schools receive a limited grant to defray book expenses.

Almost all primary schools operate book rental schemes, supported by the State grant, but parents would be liable for a charge.

Parents can look forward to free books for their children at primary level. Photo: Giordano Aita

Parents and child advocacy groups have been campaigning for years for free schoolbooks, and it is an issue to which Education Minister Norma Foley has been personally committed.

In its recent pre-Budget submission, the children’s charity Barnardos repeated its call for free schoolbooks and said the average annual cost to parents for a primary pupil is €110.

It will be the third successive Budget to announce an improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in primary schools, as part of a move to bring classes into line with international norms.

Last year’s PTR reduction brought primary school staffing allocations down to a record low of one teacher for every 24 pupils – 24:1 – which came into effect this month.

As a result of Budget 2023, that will go down to 23:1 next September.

The PTR is a count of all teachers in a school including special-education teachers and, even with recent cuts, Irish primary classes remain the largest in the EU.

The effect of this Government’s first PTR improvement, in the 2020 Budget, was to reduce class sizes to 22.8 in the 2021/2022 year, still three pupils per class above the EU standard of 20.

Class sizes are smaller again this September as a result of Budget 2022, and will be smaller again next September, as a result of tomorrow’s announcement. But the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) had been campaigning for a greater improvement in staffing levels in Budget 2023 – a reduction to 22:1 in the staffing allocation – to speed up progress to the EU class size average.

Ms Foley is also understood to have secured extra funding to help resolve the row over school buses.

Thousands of children who normally travelled on the transport service lost out this year because of a surge in demand on foot of the Government decision not to charge for tickets for 2022/2023.

There are different categories of pupils on the school bus service. Pupils who meet eligibility criteria are guaranteed a seat and, where there is spare capacity, tickets are awarded on a random basis to non-eligible applicants as “concessionary” passengers.

The high level of applications, which included eligible pupils who had not sought a ticket in previous years, presented challenges when it came to sourcing enough buses and drivers at short notice to meet demand during the shoulder tourist season.

Bus Éireann, which operates the service – largely using private contractors – has been focussing on meeting its obligation to outstanding eligible pupils.

The issue confronting Ms Foley was the thousands of concessionary passengers who have come to rely on the service.

As well as securing funding for more buses, it is understood that there is an additional €10m in the special cost-of-living package for a fuel subsidy for the school transport service.

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