Funding of schools must be tightly disciplined

Faith-based, VEC and community schools are financed in different ways. The State must devise a single model of funding that is fair and respects all concerned

“Now is the time to work towards a coherent and sustainable plan that will redress the inequitable situation in which the 58 per cent of Irish parents who choose denominational education in the free education scheme must subsidise their schools.” Photograph: Getty Images

“Now is the time to work towards a coherent and sustainable plan that will redress the inequitable situation in which the 58 per cent of Irish parents who choose denominational education in the free education scheme must subsidise their schools.” Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 01:00

Ireland has schools of all faiths and none, because that is what the Irish people want. Our system has developed in an ad-hoc way. Various religious congregations have nurtured faith-based schools over many decades. The State began to introduce vocational schools in the 1930s and more recently has provided community and comprehensive schools. Committed groups of parents have established multidenominational schools in response to parental demand.

The funding models for these schools have also developed in an ad-hoc way. This is no longer sustainable. Throughout the developed world modern democracies have had to face the issue of how to fund post-primary schools in societies where there are widely varying parental preferences as to which type of school they want for their children.

The issue relates to the broader debate on the place of religion in secular societies. The current liberal consensus is that the outlooks of people of all religions and none must be equally respected, and that no tradition or belief system should impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. In practical terms, in education, this means citizens should generally have a choice of schools for their children, allowing them to have them educated in the religious – or secular – tradition of their choice.

In many other countries, school authorities and patrons have worked with state authorities to develop a sustainable and fair model of funding that reflects this liberal consensus. However because Ireland’s post-primary model of education has developed on a piecemeal basis, our funding model lacks coherence.


ESRI report
This week’s major report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, Governance and Funding of Voluntary Secondary Schools in Ireland, lays bare that incoherence. There are three different funding mechanisms at second level, and this means it is hard to compare like with like. However the ESRI researchers surveyed principals in each type of school and identified significant disparities in funding.

For example, faith-based schools receive a per capita grant, and their total funding is based on the number of pupils per school. However, Vocational Education Committees are allocated a “block grant” distributed to their schools. Yet another model applies to community and comprehensive schools, each of which negotiates its own budget with the Department of Education each year.

There is more. VEC schools have their insurance costs paid centrally by their VEC. Insurance is dealt with in community/comprehensive schools by way of State indemnity. Faith-based schools pay their insurance costs directly.

VECs pay for non-teaching staff. In faith-based schools these staff costs are covered partly by grants, with the deficit being covered by the schools themselves. These schools are more likely to use their capitation grant to cover such staff costs as well as lighting, security and insurance.

Some faith-based schools face a particularly acute problem. In the past, the voluntary support of members of religious orders, in terms of free staff time and direct funds, covered many of their costs. As religious orders have shrunk in size and financial strength, a disparity in funding has opened between faith-based and other post-primary schools of some 30 per cent.

So 87 per cent of faith-based schools seek parental contributions compared with 62 per cent of community/compreh-
ensive schools and 49 per cent of vocational schools. Roughly half of faith-based schools ask parents for €150 or more per year, while contributions in the other sectors tend to be €50-€75 per annum.

A particular area of inequality is in the funding of the trustee function. The trustees of any school promote and protect its ethos and philosophy. They are often involved in significant issues such as financial control, building projects, the appointment of a principal and so on. They tend to devolve most of the responsibility of running a school to the board of management but can also hear appeals from board of management decisions. The role is set out in the 1998 Education Act.

Trustees in Ireland work to maintain school ethos so the commitment to give parents real choice that reflects their religious, ethical and cultural values is fulfilled.


Sustainable future
For VEC schools at least some elements of this, as well as their governance responsibilities which are set out in law, are funded through their block grant. In faith-based schools, the school trusts or religious orders pay for this function. Because of more onerous responsibilities coupled with the decline in religious personnel, some trusts are facing difficulties in sustaining funding for the future.

These anomalies are not the result of any grand plan. Indeed, they are the result of the absence of one. The enthusiasm and commitment of various school trustees, faith-based and otherwise, has driven the development of many fine post-primary schools in all traditions. But it is no longer enough. An additional factor which makes a review and change essential is that enrolment levels at post-primary schools are projected to increase by 31-34 per cent by 2021 (CSO, 2012).

There must now be a fundamental social and political discussion about the model of governance and funding in post-primary schools. With many schools facing major funding problems and discussions as to future role, now is the time to work towards a coherent and sustainable plan that will redress the inequitable situation in which the 58 per cent of Irish parents who choose denominational education in the free education scheme must subsidise their schools. It is time for an overview.


Elizabeth Manning is a director of
Educena, a Catholic school trust

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