Children's charity Barnardos is calling on the Government to make school books free for primary school students.

It wants the €20 million measure introduced in Budget 2020 and said this cost would account for just 0.2% of the Department of Education's overall budget.

CEO Suzanne Connolly said such a move would be the first step in creating a free education system.

She said that "providing free books for all children would cost a miniscule amount in terms of the Department's overall budget but it would have a transformative impact in terms of all children starting off with the same resources".

More than 1,400 parents took part in the Barnardos survey, which found that there has been a slight drop in the "back to school" costs when compared with 2018.

This year it will cost an average of €340 to send a senior infant student back to school, down €20 from last year.

The average cost of a fourth class pupil going back to school is unchanged at €380, while the average cost for 1st year students at secondary school has dropped by €10 to €735.

The survey found that almost half of parents (42% primary, 47% secondary) do not pay bills or cut back on other things to meet back to school costs.

Barnardos said it is worrying that 8% of primary school parents and 14% of secondary parents are "forced to borrow money" to meet this expense.

Ms Connolly said: "It's clear from our survey that parents are stressed out, over-burdened and fed up of subsidising our so called free education system. The substantial financial cost of sending a child to school means access to education is not free and anything but equal".

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that the Government "is committed to tackling back to school costs".

Minister Joe McHugh is finalising new legislation, called the "Student and Parent Charter Bill", which is expected to be published in the coming months.

The charter will require schools to consult with students and parents and get feed back on many issues around school life, including costs.

Almost half of all parents who took part in the Barnardos survey reported that the price of school books has increased this year, but the majority of parents who use a book rental scheme said their contributions stayed the same.

The Department of Education says it provided €16.7m in funding for the School Books Grant scheme in 2018, which is aimed at pupils whose families are on low incomes or experience financial hardship.

This grant can be used by schools to set up a rental scheme or to help individual students buy books and all schools are encouraged to operate such a scheme.

Ms Connolly said that the "underfunding" of the school system means that parents are "trying to help schools meet shortfalls in funding through voluntary contributions" and she urged Government to increase funding in this area.

This survey showed that more than two thirds of parents surveyed are still being asked for these contributions.

The department said it "recognises the need to improve capitation funding for all schools" and that an extra €10m will be available to schools from September.

Uniforms remain an issue for parents, as 75% of primary and 95% of secondary school parents say they are required to buy "crested" uniforms.

The department said it been promoting cost cutting measures in recent years such as encouraging generic clothing and the use of sew on or iron on crests.

This year the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance increased by €25 per child and children between four and 11 will receive €150, while over 12s get €275.

In 2018, this means-tested payment benefitted 145,000 families with 266,000 children, at a cost of €49.7m.

Figures released by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection show that €45.5m has already been paid out of the 2019 fund  to 122,484 families between 1 June and 27 July.

It is expected to reach more than 140,000 families again this year.

Many of the payments were made automatically, but applications remain open until 30 September.

Barnardos called for a further increase in the allowance, saying it should be "restored" to 2010 levels by a further €25 increase.

The Department of Social Protection also said that spending on school meals for children has increased by €3.6m in 2019, with 250,000 children benefitting from the scheme at a cost of €57.6m.