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Introduction of free textbooks for “doubtful” junior cycle students

School leaders have warned that many secondary schools may not be able to roll out the free textbook scheme in time for next September due to inadequate support linked to a “complicated procurement process”.

Education Minister Norma Foley recently announced that more than 200,000 Junior Cycle students (first to third years) will be eligible for free books and e-books from September next year. Parents can expect annual savings of around 300 euros through the initiative.

However, the National Association of Principals and Deputies (NAPD), which represents secondary school leaders, said a new survey of members showed 83 percent of respondents felt necessary support and information was not available.

The organization acknowledged the Education Department’s “immense efforts” to support schools in implementing the program, but said a complicated procurement process was a major stumbling block and only 36 percent expressed confidence in their schools’ ability to effectively implement the program by September.

Clients reported that the process included designing tender documents for purchases over 50,000 euros, managing the tender process, evaluating bids, managing supplier relationships, managing budget allocation, and preparing for audits and compliance assessments.

The NAPD said the procurement process took time and “time is not on our side” to deliver the program by September.

Paul Crone, the association’s director, said the process puts additional pressure on school leaders and prevents them from engaging with students, their parents and the wider school community. “We have long highlighted the increasing administrative burden placed on school leaders. Finance, procurement, human resources, health and safety and facilities management are among the many administrative tasks that distract school leaders from what really matters – interacting with their students,” he said.

“The reports we are receiving from members about the additional specialized administrative burden created by the textbook program procurement process and the lack of expertise are very concerning.”

In response, the Department for Education said it recognized this was the first year of a “major new landmark program” and that challenges were expected in the first year.

A statement said an administrative support grant will be provided to schools for the 2024-2025 school year to hire individuals for a certain number of workdays to carry out administrative work under the program.

Each secondary school is allocated ten, 13 or 16 days, depending on the school’s junior cycle enrollment.

It added that schools had obligations when procuring goods and services arising from both EU and national procurement rules, and these had already been in force for several years.

A total of 246 schools that are part of the Education and Training Board system have access to procurement support in their ETB. It was recognized that some voluntary secondary, community and comprehensive schools may have had limited experience of public procurement where the amounts involved were above a certain threshold.

The department said it is committed to providing additional user-friendly resources and support to help these schools meet these requirements after the Easter holidays.

However, Mr Crone said additional administrative support was needed as the success of the initiative still depended on the headteacher’s ability to manage a procurement process that was “the sole responsibility of him”.

He said school leaders wanted it up and running in time for September but “that now looks doubtful for many schools”.

“We are now calling on Education Minister Norma Foley to seriously consider providing secondary schools with expert administrative support to reduce increasing administrative pressures and provide the capacity in our system for school leaders to prioritize their time for their students.” he said.

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