Cuts pose a real threat to future of Protestant schools
OPINION:IN THE 2009 Budget the Government singled out the Protestant secondary school sector for damaging treatment by removing the majority of our schools from the free education scheme. Funding and benefits were withdrawn without notice on top of other cuts imposed across the education sector, writes GORDON LINNEY
Our schools were hit harder than any others. Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe acknowledged this in the Dáil last November: “I am well aware that it will cause serious difficulty and I obviously have concerns about that.” But these were empty words and the threat to the future of our schools is real.
The introduction of free education in 1967 was the most significant development in Irish education in the second half of the 20th century. For the geographically dispersed Protestant community, it created difficulties that were recognised by the then minister for education, who went to great lengths to ensure that these schools were treated “favourably because of the nature of their problems”.
One of the problems was that most of these schools had to provide boarding facilities to cater for our scattered population. A government decision was taken to treat all voluntary schools from the minority sector as belonging to the free scheme: teachers were provided and grants given in the same manner as to Catholic schools in the free scheme.
That arrangement was honoured for over 40 years until last December, when Batt O’Keeffe excluded us. The result is that, apart from those attending one of the five comprehensive schools under Protestant patronage, our children no longer enjoy the benefits of the free education scheme in a school of their own tradition.
The Government argument that the block grant meets the schools’ needs is perhaps the best indicator of its discriminatory approach. People might assume that this is an extra concessionary payment exclusive to Protestant schools. It is not. The same funding is given to Catholic schools on a per capita basis whereas the Protestant sector receives it in block form to be channelled to those most in need.
What is unfair and discriminatory is the fact that Catholic children have additional supports in their schools through various grants and a much better teacher-pupil ratio. Drawing attention to the block grant is a smoke screen to conceal the fact that Protestant children have been targeted in a damaging way.
Our schools have always catered for children of other faiths and none, believing that they have rights too. Unfortunately this does not impress our political masters, who seem unable to think outside denominational boxes. This is reflected in the Minister’s explanation given in the Dáil that his actions against the Protestant sector were prompted by his fear that some Catholic school would initiate a legal challenge he would find difficult to defend.
That is an extraordinary and worrying statement. I can certainly think of occasions where his colleagues had no difficulty coming to the financial aid of other denominational interests.
A popular spin is that our schools are elitist in the way large Catholic fee-paying schools are alleged to be. That is wrong. Our schools endeavour to cater for all Protestant children irrespective of means or ability. In one of our rural schools where many family incomes are less than what is available on social welfare, over half the pupils require significant financial assistance with their fees. It is quite disgraceful to label these people as “elitist”.
There is no such thing as a valueless system of education and we as a people have values we want to share with our young people, values that we believe are important for the community as a whole. The majority of Protestants, like their Catholic friends, want their children to attend schools with an ethos that reflects their values. There is a real sense of hurt and even anger at the difficulties caused by the Government’s change in policy. We are more than willing to play our part on an equal basis in aiding our country’s economic recovery. A key to that recovery is education and making these children pay for the failings of others is unjust and unwise. They deserve and are entitled to better.
The Rev Gordon Linney is a former Church of Ireland archdeacon of Dublin