Surprise flare-up at €3m cut to Protestant schools

Sat, Oct 24, 2009, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The Protestant schools row: a privileged elite or a minority needing special assistance?

THERE HAS rarely been a more animated public debate about such a relatively small amount of public money. The cuts in the ancillary grants to Protestant schools – unveiled in last year’s budget – will yield savings of less than €3 million in the current year. But the cut has unleashed an angry response from all of the main opposition parties and a diverse range of educational lobby groups.

Critically, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has joined the debate, praising Protestant schools for their contribution towards a more pluralist State.

Behind the scenes, the debate is less polite. Privately, some among the Protestant school lobby accuse the Department of Education of old-fashioned prejudice and discrimination. There is loose talk about the settling of old scores. (Protestant schools say they are being targeted because of their alleged temerity in challenging the department on the redeployment of teachers last year – a charge vehemently denied by the Department.)

However, some who defend Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe’s decision portray Protestant schools as elite enclaves who can well afford to take some pain. Amid charge and counter-charge where lies the truth?

The roots of the current dispute can be traced to 1967 when then Fianna Fáil minister for education Donogh O’Malley introduced free second-level education. This dramatic change created difficulties for Protestants.

While the majority Catholic population had little difficulty accessing Catholic schools, Protestant schools were scattered across the State, making it difficult for many Protestant children to attend schools with their ethos.

In recognition of this, the government brought all schools from the minority sector into the free education scheme. Broadly, the schools could avail of supports in the same way as Catholic schools within the system. The plan was that this would make it easier for Protestant schools to provide boarding and other facilities to students.

This arrangement continued for more than 40 years until last year’s budget changed the relationship between the State and Protestant schools. Essentially the schools were taken out of the free education system, losing some €2.8 million in supports for key areas like secretarial and caretaker staff.

There was also some other pain. Protestant schools – like Catholic fee-charging schools – also faced an increase in the pupil teacher ratio, now set at 20:1, compared with 19:1 in free second-level schools.

Suddenly Protestant schools had to cope with fewer teachers and fewer resources for key support staff. The block grant for Protestant schools – covering capitation, tuition and boarding grants – remains in place at a cost of €6.25 million. O’Keeffe points to this as evidence of government support for Protestant education.

The Protestant schools say this is not an additional concessionary payment. Rather, it is the “same funding as given to Catholic schools on a per capita basis but the Protestant sector receives it in block form to be channelled to those most in need”.

There are 26 Protestant second-level schools in the State, of which all but five are fee-paying. Most are fee-paying as they have to accommodate boarders from a wide catchment area. The schools are scattered throughout the State, located in 13 counties.

In all, there are close to 10,000 pupils enrolled in the 21 fee-paying schools (only boarding pupils at the Royal Prior in Raphoe pay fees). They are a diverse group ranging from some of the best known schools in the State, such as Alexandra College in Dublin, to small rural schools like the 237-pupil Monaghan Collegiate School.

Protestant schools are often portrayed as elitist, affluent and exclusive. Indeed, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, has taken issue with the Minister on this perception, which may be widely held.

Neill has accused O’Keeffe of attempting to place “all Protestants into a category of privilege – suggesting that they have chosen private education” – a change Neill describes as “manifestly unjust”.

So who is being educated in the 21 fee-paying Protestant schools? Undoubtedly, some are wealthy. But there is a significant minority who require financial assistance.

The Protestant schools themselves distribute the Government’s €6.5 million block grant to those in need. Its Secondary Education Committee provides support to individual families. It doesn’t break down the grant on a school-by-school basis.

Grant support is available to those whose income is broadly at the same level as social welfare payments. The committee says about 25 per cent of the 10,000 pupils are in receipt of some level of support. In all, they say 800 students are in receipt of the maximum boarding grant (€6,699) or the maximum day grant (€2,505). The Protestant schools also point to individual cases. Some 98 per cent of pupils at the Royal School in Cavan are in receipt of some support.

At Wilson’s Hospital in Westmeath, 189 of the school’s 400 pupils also receive some support. In all, 79 pupils at the school receive the maximum level of support.

At Monaghan Collegiate School, one in five of the parent body is on social welfare.

This week O’Keeffe acknowledged the Protestant community was “very mixed and ranging across the sociological spectrum in terms of income”. He said he was “conscious that Protestant schools in rural areas may be in a different financial position to the larger schools in Dublin”. He said he was willing to listen to proposals which would focus funding on schools in rural areas more effectively.

But O’Keeffe has set limits on any possible compromise. In the Sunday Independent last weekend he wrote: “Exempting Protestant schools from the changes made in last year’s Budget and treating them as a special case would conflict with Article 42 of the Constitution which states that State aid for schools should not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations.”

[Article 42 of the Constitution states: 1. The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.

2. Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State.

3.1 The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State.

.2 The State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.

4. The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.

5. In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.]

The Minister repeated this stance in the Dáil on Tuesday, arguing that any concession would be unconstitutional on the basis of advice he had received from the Attorney General. Broadly, it appears the Minister and his department see the Protestant schools (and indeed all fee-paying schools) as relatively well-resourced.

The Minister points to the €39.4 million which Protestant (and Jewish) schools receive from the State to cover teachers’ salaries. He says all fee-paying schools – regardless of ethos – also have extra income, compared to schools in the State sector. The Protestant schools say this is a gross misrepresentation. Many schools, they say, will struggle to survive unless the cuts are rescinded.

The Minister has been accused of undermining the constitutional right of Protestant families to send their children to a school that caters for their faith. This week Dr Neill accused the Department of Education of mounting a “very determined and doctrinaire effort . . . to strike at a sector which some officials totally failed to understand”.


Seán Flynn is Education Editor.

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