State protection of Protestant fee-paying schools needs to be challenged
State subsidy scheme was hijacked to help defend a caste system
Sandford Park School Ranelagh – “Protestants are unique in their entitlement to a grant to attend Sandford Park which claims to be non-denominational.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
It is that time of the year when interest groups make their case for protection from yet another recessionary budget. Among these groups can be found the Republic’s fee-charging second-level schools, and the Protestant schools in this sector particularly.
In the arguments advanced annually by this group it is held that in the late 1960s the government promised to protect Protestants and their involvement in second-level education. It is argued that this deal, and with it the security of a well-established religious minority, is being unpicked. There has been much talk of promises broken and constitutional rights violated.
The notion that Ireland’s Protestant minority requires fee-charging schools as citadels for protection is worth challenging. For one thing, there are Protestant schools in the free education sector: five comprehensive schools and two secondary schools, with a new school planned for Wicklow. How is it that Protestant students in the catchment areas of these can secure Government-subsidised grants to attend fee- charging Protestant schools?
Such are the anomalies of the scheme that a Church of Ireland student could forgo a free education in a second- level school under Church of Ireland patronage and receive a grant to attend a Presbyterian or Methodist one.
Indeed, the Republic’s Protestants are unique in their entitlement to such a grant to attend Sandford Park, which claims to be non-denominational. Why are Hindus, Muslims and atheists excluded from such protection?
This should not be read as an attack on the subsidy scheme for Protestant fee- charging schools as a whole. It was designed with a specific purpose in mind which it fulfils. The scheme is administered by people who work conscientiously to administer it in a fair and compassionate manner. A brief overview shows there is another side.
In September 1967 the State began rolling out a scheme providing free second-level education to all children in the Republic. It proved difficult to implement in the Protestant sector. The dispersed nature of the State’s Protestant community had resulted in an inefficient network of small schools and a dependency on boarding schools, while the absence of teaching orders meant Prot- estant schools had to pay all their teachers salaries commensurate with secular life.
Where possible the State sought to build large comprehensive schools under Protestant patronage. Otherwise it sought to subsidise existing secondary schools.
These schemes were hijacked by opponents of Protestant comprehensive schools who feared they were Trojan horses intended to rob Protestants of their entitlement to privileged positions in society. One argument submitted by the Church of Ireland to the Department of the Taoiseach in 1969 held that vocational schools did not have an environment suitable for Protestant pupils, in part because they lacked extracurricular activities, were understaffed, the teachers were underqualified, class sizes were too large and their emphasis was for “pupils who had aptitudes distinctly biased in favour of hand and eye subjects”. This was Protestantism defended as a caste, not as a religious belief system.
Another concern was the fear of the 1908 papal decree known as Ne Temere, with which the Catholic Church insisted that in mixed marriages involving a Catholic partner the children must be raised Catholic. It was feared the student body of Protestant comprehensive schools would be leavened with too many Catholics, threatening the community’s homogeneity.
This vanguard campaigned aggressively and successfully to limit the scope of Protestant comprehensive education and made sure free education would be only a minority component of Protestant second-level education in the Republic. This legacy has lasted to the present. Whether it continues is at the heart of the current debate.
Robbie Roulston teaches in UCD’s School of History and Archives