Budget cuts and Protestant schools

 

IT IS to be hoped last night’s unusually robust speech by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin will alert the wider public to the devastating impact of Budget cuts on Protestant schools. The Most Rev Dr John Neill criticised the “very discriminatory nature of the cuts’’ and what he termed an “unbelievable lack of understanding” by the Department of Education. Last October, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe withdrew a range of ancillary grants and supports to Protestant schools. He also decided to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in Protestant and other fee-paying schools. The cuts mark a departure from an honourable tradition stretching back over 40 years where the State has sought to protect and nurture Protestant education.

Since the introduction of free education in 1967, Protestant voluntary schools have been treated and designated by successive ministers for education as being within “the free scheme” as block grant schools. In doing so, the State acknowledged how these schools cater for the educational needs of a dispersed Protestant community where no “free’’ Protestant school is available to parents.

The schools say a large portion of this State aid is distributed to students from poorer backgrounds. A report from the Church of Ireland Board of Education underlines the anger these changes have provoked. “It is a cause of great resentment on the part of many in our community that there has now been, without consultation or notice, an apparent realignment of the Protestant voluntary schools.’’

There will be little comfort in Mr O’Keeffe’s reassurance that the € 6.5 million paid as part of the block grant system will remain. The loss of ancillary payments will deprive the schools of some €2.8 million in funds for such expenses as caretaker and secretarial supports while the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio will put some teaching jobs at risk.

Protestant schools are entitled to believe that they have been singled out. The support services grant for ancillary services will continue to be available to other schools within the free education scheme. Last night, Mr O’Keeffe stressed his support for Protestant schools and his willingness to explore any proposals which might emerge from ongoing discussions with Dr Neill and other bishops. However, the Minister has not softened his hardline stance since the Budget when he declared: “I can see no justification for treating the Protestant fee-charging schools in a special way, particularly given that Catholic fee-charging schools have not been in receipt of the grants at all.”

But that is not the point. Successive governments have recognised the very real needs of Protestant schools and communities, reflecting their unique role and place in our society. As the Minister acknowledged, students from Protestant backgrounds should be able to attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos. But Protestant schools must be facilitated by the State as they seek to provide education for a dispersed community. They should not be penalised.