Back to school blues
In an expensive world, in times when wallets are more likely contain cobwebs than cash, and when, for so many people, there is far too much month left at the end of the money, as it were, generic is good. Generic drugs are cheaper than brand name drugs. A supermarket with a good selection of generic 'own brand' products, will do well, and once something serves the purpose for which it was intended, the name on the label matters not a curse. For many shoppers, the big brand has had its day, replaced by the generic option.
There's one glaring exception to this, however. As any parent will tell you, and as children's charity Barnardos showed this week in its annual back to school survey, the cost of the annual Back to School preparations, remains outrageous. Textbooks are 'upgraded', year after year, and children must have the 'new' edition. Almost without exception, the changes from one edition to another are miniscule, yet the new edition must be purchased. There's also, in recent years, been a proliferation of texts presented in 'workbook' style, rendering them virtually useless after year.
We are, it seems, unfortunately, still a long way from the day when every child will carry an iPad or other such 'tablet' computer to and from school with all their texts in it. A number of forward-thinking, progressive schools have done it, but as yet, its far from the norm. Until that happens, and until such time as the Department of Education puts its foot firmly down on the seemingly endless 'upgrading' of basic texts, the arrival of the annual book list will be a moment filled with dread for parents.
When my daughter started secondary school, we left in the region of €500 behind us in the bookshop by the time we had left. It's a colossal amount of money. I pity any parent with two or three kids starting school this September. Some schools have organised excellent book rental schemes, but for the majority of parents, the nightmare of having to shell out a small fortune remains. Again, you would have to think that a progressive Department of Education would listen to the concerns of parents and encourage – maybe even incentivise schools – to bring in rental schemes. Well, you would, wouldn't you?
However, books aside, the single biggest expense of getting children to school, is the uniform. I smiled to myself last week when I saw Aldi entering the uniform market, offering generic skirts, jumpers, pants and other items for under a fiver. It's a wonderful idea, but for the majority of parents, it's about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
Even in 2012, it's a sad fact that very few schools will accept generic uniforms being worn by pupils. The skirt, or the jumper, or the tracksuit or the blazer has to be the 'recommended' standard issue, with the red fleck or the navy stripe in the leg. These rules are still strictly enforced. The uniform still has to be purchased in a recommended outlet. A pullover that might be €5 or €10 in Aldi, Dunnes or Marks & Sparks, cannot be substituted for the 'recommended' item, which may cost €30 or more. This has to stop.
Many parents are struggling in these difficult times to dress their children. It's simply not right, that a school can force them to spend money they don't have, on red flecks, embroidered crests, or skirts and trousers in a unique shade of green, purple or blue. Far be it from me to suggest that there's anything untoward in these supply contracts between certain shops and certain schools, but somebody is benefiting from them, and it certainly isn't the parents.
Neil has been discussing this topic at length on 96fm over the past fortnight. It's obvious listening to many of his callers that for many parents, Aldi, Dunnes, Penneys, Tesco or Marks, might as well be giving out packets of smarties, for all the use they can make of generic schoolwear. Again, it seems to me that there's a need for some leadership at Departmental level.
An instruction needs to come 'from the top down', that a generic uniform, with a school crest sewn on, is perfectly acceptable.
I have absolutely no doubt in my mind, that come September, we will hear about a child being sent home with a 'Dear Mrs. Murphy' note, requesting that Johnny be dressed in the 'appropriate' uniform. Have no doubt, here and now, that any Cork school attempting to justify such a mean-spirited move, will find themselves answering to us in 96FM, because we'll want to know why.