There was a buzz at the gates at eight o’clock this morning. A white vanned courier man stood with a cardboard box. Schoolbooks ordered online on Tuesday. A receipt was included in the packaging, €148.99
Checking through the list for the autumn: having some books second hand, and ordering others from the UK, the total should not be much more than €250 – a cheaper year than most.
But what if I didn’t have €250? What if I was struggling on social welfare and was presented with a list of schoolbooks needed for September? Schools do their best to run loan schemes, and parents pass books on to others, but nothing is free. The social welfare ‘back to school’ grant does not stretch to covering the cost of everything needed.
What if you can’t pay? Presumably your child just has to do without; has to try to borrow the necessary texts; has to try to share with friends.
Perhaps the memory plays tricks, but there was never a situation I can recall in England or Northern Ireland where pupils had to pay for their own textbooks.
As with health care in Ireland, so with education: the more you can afford to pay, the better the service you can buy. University admissions are dominated by pupils from fee paying schools; even at primary school level, the best equipped schools are those where middle class parents can afford large voluntary contributions and can run very profitable fund raising events.
It seems odd in an overwhelmingly Catholic state, that such inequality should have emerged; that a society that has been based on a strong sense of community has left such fundamental areas of national life to be determined by individuals’ ability to pay. While Pope John Paul II may have been very conservative on matters of sexuality, he was profoundly progressive on matters of social justice, on the dignity of every person, on the need for every individual to have opportunity in life.
Against a background of strong Catholic social teaching, how have the massive inequalities in health and education arisen?
Perhaps the roots are in the fierce resistance that the church put up to state involvement in areas considered to be spheres of church influence. Symptomatic of that resistance was the battle between church and state over Minister Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme in 1950. The bishops were not going to allow the state into health care if this meant a dilution of church influence. Their letter of 10th October 1950 to the Taoiseach included the following:
The right to provide for the health of children belongs to parents, not the State. The State has the right to intervene only in a subsidiary capacity, to supplement not to supplant.
It may help indigent or neglectful parents; it may not deprive 90
per cent of parents of their rights because of 10 per cent necessitous or negligent parents.
It is not sound social policy to impose State medical service on the whole community on the pretext of relieving the necessitous 10 per cent from the so-called indignity of the means test.
There was no possibility of a national health service. Health care developed in an ad hoc way; even now there is no proper integration of services.
Similarly, the modern Irish state was barred from developing an educational service comparable to those of other Western European countries. It remains piecemeal, ad hoc and a bastion of inequality. It serves the middle classes well, but does little for those who cannot afford €250 for schoolbooks. Aspirations for social justice, and aspirations for maintaining a particular religious ethos, seem mutually exclusive.