Funding private schools
There are 55 private fee-paying schools in Ireland, attended by some 26,000 pupils, which benefit from generous State support at a time of serious imbalances in the public finances. In 2009, when the public spending review group headed by economist Colm McCarthy, completed its report, it favoured a sharp €25 million cut in the State subvention to fee-paying schools.
Since then, the Government has moved in stages to implement that recommendation. Last year, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn commissioned a study of how the schools use their fee income, which is mainly spent on improving their teaching resources, and on providing students with a wide range of extra-curricular activities.
The Department of Education report has found that those at private schools have €81.3 million more available to them than is available to those at similarly sized non fee-paying schools. The fee revenues, it points out, allow private schools “to recruit additional subject teachers and extra ancillary staff or invest in capital improvements and extra-curricular activities”. The number of schools that charge fees remains small, 8 per cent of all post-primary level schools.
How much difference does the extra financing from fee-income that private schools enjoy really make? Less than most people might assume. In 2011, an OECD study suggested private fee-paying schools were performing no better than those in the non fee-paying State sector. And that view has been largely reflected in The Irish Times annual feeder school lists which track the progression of students to third-level education. These have shown that State schools can, if they are located in affluent areas, match the progression rate achieved by some fee-paying schools. Education is not, however, a matter to be measured solely by academic achievement, or position in the points table.
The debate about fee-paying schools raises a range of concerns: issues of economics, social equity and ideology. Mr Quinn can justify reducing State funding for private schools on grounds of economic necessity and greater social equity though some are not in the soundest of financial health. When all sections of society are obliged to accept sacrifices in the national interest, then few exceptions can be allowed.
The Minister, by increasing the pupil-teacher ratio in successive budgets, has already cut the State subvention to private schools. The report provides an opportunity for more debate, on whether to further reduce State spending.
Fee-charging schools insist withdrawing State funding could cost more, warning that as fees rise parents may transfer their children to free education schools. It’s a valid point, in some respects.
Mr Quinn is keeping his counsel as he studies the report that will influence the Government on the future and form of private education.