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
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.
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.