Reducing State support for fee-paying schools is logical and equitable
Government is correct to prioritise schools in the free system
The Department of Education found that 55 fee-paying schools such as Blackrock College had ¤80 million in resources available to them. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The vast majority of Irish secondary schools, more than 93 per cent in fact, are in the State sector. These schools provide an excellent service to their local communities and are completely dependent on the State for educational resources and staffing. Most Irish students attend these schools, most Irish teachers teach in these schools and most parents send their children to these schools. Is it any surprise therefore that the Government would prioritise schools in the free scheme above those in the fee-paying sector?
The debate about State subvention of private schools has often been mired in divisive and absolutist terms. It is true that the Department of Education allocates about €100 million a year to pay teachers in private schools, and that if all of these 55 fee-paying schools came into the State system overnight it would be at a considerable cost to the taxpayer.
This is because the department does not provide other payments such as capitation and support for building projects. However, the department’s recently published report about resources available to fee-paying schools makes for interesting reading.
It found the 55 private schools have more than €80 million in disposable income between them – an average of about €1.5 million each. Private schools have seven times more funding at their disposal than schools in the public system. The question then has to be asked: should the State be supporting these schools at the current level when they have such considerable financial resources?
Defenders of the status quo often quote figures from a 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by the fee-paying school sector, which outlined the supposed savings private schools offer the State. Unfortunately, no one in the department has seen the report as it has not been published. The department’s figures can be verified independently. The PwC report’s findings effectively have the statistical status of a press release.
While some fee-paying schools such as Belvedere College have made great strides in recent years to promote greater diversity and inclusivity among their intake, it must be acknowledged that schools in the free scheme have more open and inclusive admission policies. While the department has found challenges in this regard throughout the second-level system, it holds true that the vast majority of public schools accept with open arms students regardless of socioeconomic background, ethnicity or special educational needs.
Some minority-faith schools argue charging fees is the only way they can sustain their institutions while retaining their religious ethos. However, in recent years two private schools under Protestant patronage decided their future was best served by entering the free schooling system.
It is not practical or justifiable for the State to withdraw immediately the subvention it provides private schools. What is more reasonable is to continue the policy pursued since the Government came into office two years ago, which is to increase disproportionally the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in fee-paying schools.
Bord Snip Nua
We have increased the PTR in private schools to 23-1 while maintaining the PTR in the State sector at 19-1. An increase to 28-1, as recommended by the Colm McCarthy “An Bord Snip Nua” report, would result in those 55 schools still having about €60 million in disposable income.
Education is the great liberator. Regardless of whatever misfortune may visit one’s door during life’s journey, education will always be the most empowering, enabling and uplifting force. Parents who think deeply about their children’s education are to be congratulated and encouraged. The society that values education is a rich and vibrant one that can look to the future with confidence.
That is why we must protect first and foremost the resources in those schools that depend completely on State support. If it means we must gradually reduce State support of the fee-paying sector, to ensure we can continue to defend the resources of the remaining
93 per cent of the Republic’s secondary schools, I believe that would be logical, justifiable and equitable.