Are school fees fair?
Belvedere College’s ‘social diversity programme’, which features in the new RTÉ documentary The Scholarship, offers a private education to pupils who can’t afford the Dublin school’s fees. Critics say such schemes wouldn’t be needed if our education system were more equal
Belvedere: Gerry Foley, the school’s headmaster. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Belvedere: David Zaworski, one of the boys who features in The Scholarship. Photograph: Loosehorse/RTÉ
This week thousands of children have been going back to school. Most are moving up a grade. Some are moving from primary school to their local secondary school. And 15 are going from ordinary primary schools in disadvantaged areas of Dublin to Belvedere College, the private school located just to the north of the city centre.
This is part of the school’s social-diversity programme, which offers places at the school to boys whose families can’t afford fees, and next week a new RTÉ documentary series, The Scholarship, follows boys and their families as they apply for places on the programme.
It’s a powerful documentary: warm, nonjudgmental, matter-of-fact. The first episode features five children and their parents, some of whom didn’t finish secondary school, all considering the difference a place at Belvedere might make to their lives.
There’s a Polish boy, a boy from a Traveller family and two children of disabled parents. They’re smart, funny kids. One has kept a portfolio of his drawings since he was in senior infants. Another watches an hour of world news every morning. A third wants to be a barrister. (His primary-school teacher notes that five other children in the class now want to be barristers too.) For all of these children and their families, a place at private school is seen as a way out of a cycle of poverty and educational disadvantage.
But laudable as Belvedere’s social-diversity scheme is – it’s very well run and ambitious in scope – the educational disadvantage it sets out to address is arguably made more problematic by the existence of private schools in the first place.
Ireland has only 55 fee-paying schools, with about 25,000 students between them, but their graduates have a disproportionate influence in society. A recent report in this newspaper noted that more than half of the Cabinet attended private schools.
Parents choose to pay for private education because they believe it confers an advantage on their children, but the nature of that advantage is the subject of debate.
A study of public and private education in Ireland published in 2011 by two Israeli academics, Danny Pfeffermann and Victoria Landsman, found that when social class and enrolment biases were accounted for, public schools in Ireland performed better on average than private schools. (The researchers focused on performance in maths.)
“The much-vaunted effects of private schools could well be a mirage,” says Kevin Denny, an economics lecturer at University College Dublin who has written extensively about education. “There was the recent court case where the judge said a boy should go to a certain school because it was ‘by common consensus’ the best in the country. That’s not a completely stupid idea, but there’s no evidence for that, and I’d expect a higher standard of evidence from a judge . . .
“A lot more is believed about the effects of private education than is actually known. People just assume it’s better than the public options. The people who send their kids there certainly tend to believe it, and they tend to be very influential in society – academics or judges or journalists – so their views are probably over-represented in the dialogue. But it’s not necessarily true.
“The problem in Ireland is that we don’t have the data and [that where we do have data] we’re not comparing like with like. The kinds of kids who go to Gonzaga [the private Jesuit college in Ranelagh] and their parents are different from the kids who go to [non-fee-paying schools]. So what you really want to compare is the value added.