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
Foley, who stresses that he doesn’t want to be seen as a representative for fee-paying schools in general, says that Government spending on education is too low and points to grind schools, music lessons, trips to the Gaeltacht and all the other ways middle-class parents gain an educational advantage.
“The debate should be about the quality of education that the State provides. Instead what has happened is there’s been a convenient distraction in talking about these schools, which are an anomaly in ways, a tiny minority.”
So he rejects the idea that fee-paying schools enshrine a segregational society. Schools, he says, reflect society; they don’t create it. “The people who send their children to this school are not doing it to keep their children away from other people. They want their kids to get a Jesuit education. That’s a key thing for a lot of the parents.”
Ultimately what fee-paying schools offer, he says, is choice. “Education is not a commodity. It’s a very personal choice.”
Karl Kitching is a little unsure of such terminology. “In this context words like ‘choice’ mean a particular kind of choice, a particular kind of freedom based on market principles that don’t protect the lower echelons of society and force them to compete in an unfair situation. The only people who actively get to choose are middle-class people.”
The Belvedere scholarship has been, since the late 1980s, a noble attempt to offset the exclusionary nature of fee-paying education. Kim Bartley came away from the film-making experience impressed by what the college has achieved. Kevin Denny is also positive about it.
“For the kids in question it can make a huge difference,” he says. “And small differences can have a big effect in poorer, disadvantaged communities where you mightn’t know anyone who has gone to university. I wouldn’t knock things like this. We just don’t have enough of them.”
But, more generally for critics of private education, the altruism of Belvedere and the kindness of its staff to the children they choose to help sit uneasily alongside the inequity of the wider system. Educational disadvantage and educational privilege are not unrelated issues for academics such as Denny.
“It’s hard to justify why kids are so dependent on the lottery of birth,” he says. “It’s not just about fairness. It’s also about efficiency. Ireland as a going enterprise needs to make best use of its people. Talented kids in Ballyfermot and Ballymun aren’t finding their potential. That’s not just bad for them. It’s bad for Ireland. We’re losing people due to accident of birth, and that’s not a good policy in the long run.”
The Scholarship is on RTÉ One on Monday at 9.35pm