In defence of grants: Protestant perspectives on schooling
Protestant fee-charging secondary schools feel under attack. Staff and parents object to the charge of elitism and believe that forcing schools into the free system does not make financial sense
Midleton College, Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Midleton College principal Simon Thompson: ‘I think there is a growing awareness that should schools like ours move to the free scheme, there is going to be a real additional annual cost to the State.’ Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
‘We feel that Protestants are effectively being persecuted by the Labour element in Government when it comes to education, and we need the Taoiseach’s help.” So said Cllr Neale Richmond of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council last month, as a group of Protestant Fine Gael councillors wrote to the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, asking him to address increases in pupil-teacher ratios in fee-charging Protestant schools.
The debate has continued in The Irish Times letters page, and elsewhere, in the weeks since.
The roots of the issue go back to 1967, when the State brought in a scheme to provide free second-level education to all children. At the time, there was a network of fee-paying boarding schools; of the 54 fee-charging second-level schools left in the State today, 19 are Protestant.
Since the 1960s, then, Protestant fee-charging schools were recognised as distinct from other fee-charging secondary schools. Since 2008, pupil-teacher ratios for Protestant fee-charging schools has trebled, so that from this month the ratio will stand at 23 to 1, compared with 19 to 1 in the free education sector.
As Julie Carr, a mother with children in secondary school, wrote in The Irish Times in August: “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.”
Midleton College, a fee-paying Protestant co-educational school in Co Cork, has existed as a day and boarding school for second-level pupils for more than 300 years. About a quarter of the students are boarders. The full boarding fee is €9,399 per annum, while day fees are €4,701.
One argument goes that if schools such as this one are forced to enter the free education scheme, the State will have to pick up the tab for that parents currently pay. The fee-paying schools also point out that, unlike some free-education schools, they alone have carried the capital costs for their schools.
These schools are asking the Government to continue to pay for their teachers and to provide block grants to some students. “This school exists in the first instance to serve the Protestant community of east and north Cork,” explains Midleton College principal Simon Thompson.
“Beyond that, we also serve the local community. If a family makes a commitment to the school, we make a commitment to the family. I think there is a growing awareness among the general public that should schools like ours move to the free scheme, then there is going to be a real additional annual cost to the State.”
If fee-paying Protestant schools do move to the free education system, there is a worry that parents will still be asked to subsidise the schools’ activities. One former fee-paying Protestant school that did move into the scheme is Kilkenny College, where parents were asked to make a voluntary contribution of €250 in this school year.
If day students at Kilkenny College want to partake in a range of activities and services from 3.30pm until 10pm, including meals, supervised study, sporting and other clubs, there is a charge of €2,500. The college points out it has an extensive bursary scheme in place to ensure that every student, regardless of economic status, can participate if they so wish.