September 23, 2022

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The expense of going back to school is making headlines — but uniforms, schoolbooks and voluntary contributions are the least of parents’ worries in many cases.

Personal devices including Apple’s iPad and Microsoft’s Surface are compulsory purchases in a growing number of Irish second level schools. Some 23 per cent of parents responding to a recent Barnardos survey stated that they had to pay over €300 for digital technology for their child. For many parents the cost is closer to €1,000 when other costs are factored in. This could be considered as a stealth tax.

Many of the costs of technology are hidden costs and very few schools provide a total cost on their own school website. For example, for incoming first year students to a school that requires an iPad there is usually an information evening in the early Spring where parents are advised that the online store to purchase the mandatory technology opens in early April and closes in early June. Parents are provided with a link and the unique code for their school. This makes it difficult to compare costs for one school with another.

Individual schools will prescribe specific bundles to be purchased. Bundle costs vary depending on the individual school requirements for the device specification, memory and the protective cases.

Insurance is a recommended purchase and standard insurance covers accidental damage, liquid damage, theft and worldwide cover. Insurance for a lost device is also available for an additional premium. There is also a mandatory “service charge” of approximately €100 that the companies charge. This charge covers managing licenses, configuration of the device and an introductory workshop and support.

So, many may ask, why do parents choose to send their children to these schools? In Ireland choosing a second level school can be a complex process. For example, in Limerick parents do not simply apply to their school of choice. There is a common application system and the administration of this system is undertaken by the Limerick Education Centre on behalf of the Limerick Principals and Deputy Principals’ Association.

Therefore, when it comes to technology, some parents simply do not have a choice. The school most likely to offer their child a place may well be a school with a mandatory device purchase for incoming first years.

The new digital strategy for education has embedded compulsory ICT use into the skills for Junior Cycle. We can expect the reformed Senior Cycle to have a similar component.

This is progressive, in many ways, as technology becomes more and more embedded in many aspects of our daily lives. We must have digital skills and we must engage with the modern world.

However, when the Department of Education embedded the use of technology into the Junior Cycle, the provision of access to technology outside of the physical school building was not part of the roll-out. The reality is that, in order to complete a successful Junior Cycle, students need to have access to technology at home. It is possible to carry out the ICT aspects using a smartphone, but this is far from optimal.

At third level the use of ICT is supported by large IT departments and HEAnet, the National Education and Research Network, provides brokerage services to help third level clients to streamline their ICT procurement processes. There is also an online HEAnet Store which provides a wide range of educational discounts on ICT hardware, software and other services for students, staff and researchers across the country.

There is a huge need for a similar collective bargaining at second level. Second level schools have ICT/digital learning coordinators. These members of staff identify the teaching and learning needs of their colleagues, liaise with the device provider, communicate with the school community and solve some of the day to day IT issues. Usually, schools also have a part-time technician.

It should not be compulsory for students to have overly-expensive digital equipment, particularly when such purchases puts parents under extreme financial pressure and in some cases puts them into debt.

But these roles are not sufficient to meet the growing needs of a large school community. There is a strong argument to be made for schools to have full-time technicians on their staff to deal with technical issues and to resolve problems quickly.

The Minister for Education frequently reminds the public that schools in Ireland are autonomous and “decisions regarding the deployment and use of digital technologies are a matter for the management of schools as they are best placed to determine this according to their own situation and requirements.”

However, given that technology is now embedded in the Junior Cycle and considering the expense associated with this technology, is it not time to revise this policy?

The National Parents Council and Barnardos have called on the Government to introduce free schoolbooks, make affordable uniforms the norm and to end voluntary contributions.

The expectations around the provision of technology also needs to be discussed as part of this process. It should not be compulsory for students to have overly-expensive digital equipment, particularly when such purchases puts parents under extreme financial pressure and in some cases puts them into debt.

Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is a lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at the University of Limerick

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