Changes in regime relating to fee-paying schools threaten the Protestant ethos
Opinion: Vast majority of parents are hard-working taxpayers and not well-off
St Columba’s College in Dublin: originally, Protestant fee-charging schools were recognised separately from other fee-charging schools owing to the far-sighted initiative of then minister for education Donogh O’Malley. Photograph: Eric Luke
The constitutional right of Protestant parents to educate their children in a school of their choice is being slowly suppressed.
Since 2008, the pupil-teacher ratio for Protestant, fee-charging secondary schools has increased three times. From September, it will stand at 23 to one. This has increased costs in individual schools so that teachers are being let go, subjects cut back and fees increased.
There is now enormous strain on parents to find the money to keep their children in a school of their ethos. The vast majority of parents are ordinary, hardworking taxpayers who are not well off. Increasing numbers are being forced, with heavy hearts, to send their children to schools in the free system, which are not of the Protestant ethos.
Unfortunately, the debate on State support for fee-charging schools has been characterised by a tendency to inaccurately label Protestant families who choose to educate their children in such schools as elite and well-heeled. This masks the reality faced by many Protestant families.
Of the 54 fee-charging schools in the State, 19 are Protestant schools. These schools have in their care a diverse pupil cohort, from different regions of the country, different socio-economic backgrounds and of vastly different academic ability. In this respect they are markedly different from the majority of the other fee-charging schools.
For this very reason, since the 1960s, Protestant fee-charging schools were recognised separately from other fee-charging secondary schools, due to the far-sighted initiative of then minister Donogh O’Malley. This enabled Protestant families across the community to educate their children in a school of their choice, irrespective of their means or location.
Over the years, Protestant schools have been successful in sustaining a direction of prayer, an ethos and a sense of belonging to the Protestant faith for their teenage pupils.
It is Labour Party policy to increase the pupil-teacher ratio for fee-charging secondary schools even further. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that Fine Gael has chosen not to take on its coalition partners on this issue.
Protestant families find themselves borrowing to try to bridge the ever-increasing gap created by the increase in pupil-teacher ratio. Research undertaken in 2012 found that 48 per cent of Protestant parents found it necessary to apply for financial assistance to send their children to a school of their ethos. This percentage is growing.
The Government points to the means-tested block grant as evidence of its commitment to the Protestant community. It maintains that this mechanism ensures Protestant families can still send their children to a school of their ethos, irrespective of pupil-teacher ratio increases.
However, the number of families applying for this grant is rising markedly. The widening gap generated by the increase in pupil-teacher ratio makes it more difficult to attend and remain in school. Increasing numbers of those who would normally qualify for assistance are being forced into the free system.
The more children that move into the free education system, the greater the burden on the exchequer. Two Protestant fee-charging schools have been already been forced to enter the free system. A policy ostensibly designed to save the exchequer money ends up costing money.
Meanwhile, many in the Protestant community view the actions of the current Government as tantamount to discrimination. The increasing pupil-teacher ratio for Protestant schools represents a vivid, flashing danger light for this and future generations of Protestants in the Republic. Notwithstanding the State’s economic difficulties, it is a sad reflection on our society that this policy is allowed to proceed unchecked.
Polite Protestant families are angry. Politicians of every hue, particularly Fine Gael ministers and backbenchers, need to raise their voices and challenge this policy. If our public representatives do not confront this issue, the fabric of the Protestant community in our Republic will be torn beyond repair.
Julie Carr is the mother of secondary school-attending children.