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
“The two Israeli statisticians, when they allowed for the selection issue – the fact that the kids who select into one school are quite different from the kids who select into another – found that there was no real difference [in the quality of education] . . . The reason they do differently is not better education but because the parents and kids are different.”
But, for many parents, choosing a private school is not just about education in the narrow sense. Denny believes that fee-paying schools also facilitate a sort of class consolidation. Yes, some people make sacrifices to send their children to private school, but in so doing they are ensuring that their children will meet few people outside the middle or upper classes. This financial segregation worries some but appeals to others.
“The people who send their kids to Gonzaga or Blackrock, it’s not just for Leaving Cert results. It’s for their social circle and whether you want them to play rugby and want them to grow up with certain groups of people,” says Denny.
“I’m not sure that kind of polarisation is good for society. I’m very keen on diversity. Having grown up in an undiverse background . . . I think people should be in diversified environments: socially, racially, whatever.”
It’s this class consolidation that is, arguably, what’s so beneficial about a Belvedere education for the scholarship students. “These boys could well have had a good education in the local Deis school or another school,” says Kim Bartley, the maker of the documentary series, referring to the Department of Education’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools scheme for educational inclusion.
“But, realistically, going to Belvedere will have a huge effect on their lives. They will have a network of friends born into families of lawyers or doctors . . . It’s completely over their heads now, but some of the kids they are in the same year as have well-known or wealthy parents in positions of power in society. That’s the reality.”
For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as opposed to those already hailing from privileged households, access to these networks is particularly powerful.
“It’s not that if they don’t go to Belvedere they have no hope of progressing, but it does open up a realm that none of our children would otherwise experience,” says Derry Amphlett, principal of Our Lady Immaculate primary school in Darndale, some of whose students have received a Belvedere scholarship.
“If you take Darndale, everyone who lives there is from similar backgrounds. Whereas if they go to Belvedere it’s definitely opening vistas for them that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Later he adds: “There is a question of social justice there. Just because a child is born and grows up in Darndale, should they not have the same possibilities and access to opportunity as children born and brought up in other areas?”
Karl Kitching, an educational sociologist at University College Cork, sees private education as just one element in “a broader consumerisation of education, or marketisation of education, both in the private and the public domains. There’s clear evidence that that trend towards marketisation creates inequality and exacerbates inequality.”
This is a perspective partially shared by Belvedere’s headmaster, Gerry Foley, who also believes that unequal access to education is a much bigger issue than fee-paying schools, and that these schools are scapegoated in the debate.