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Private schools in Ireland: What do they charge and how much have their fees risen?

Irish Times survey finds most of the 50 private schools increased fees by between 5 and 15 per cent this year

Private Schools

Last year tuition fees at St Columba’s College, a private school at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, were among the highest in the country. This year, they climbed higher still.

“We know that our energy bills are going to double or triple next year – that’ll wipe out our surplus,” says Mark Boobbyer, warden of St Columba’s, where fees reached €9,632 this year, a 5 per cent increase.

“The only way we can manage that is by passing that on, unfortunately. Certainly, we would prefer not to put fees up, but sometimes you have to.”

St Columba’s isn’t alone. Most of the 50 private schools in the State have increased their fees by anywhere between 5 and 15 per cent this year, and others warn that bigger hikes are coming down the line.

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They say a Government decision in October’s budget to deny fee-charging schools automatic access to a €90 million fund to support higher school running costs means they have to increase charges.

An Irish Times survey shows fees for day pupils have now broken the €9,000 barrier.

St Columba’s in Dublin is the most expensive, followed by Cistercian College in Roscrea, Co Tipperary (€8,265); Sutton Park, Dublin 13 (€7,995); Alexandra College, Dublin 6 (€7,992); and The King’s Hospital’s School, Co Dublin (€7,930)

Among boarding schools, St Columba’s is also the most expensive for seven-day boarding (up to €25,904); followed by Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare (€21,840); Rathdown School, Glenageary (€21,630) and Glentstal Abbey, Co Limerick (€20,475).

Most school principals in fee-charging schools approached for comment declined to speak on the record, but many expressed worry that fees will soon start to climb out of reach for middle-income families.

“We have lots of families of relatively ordinary means who make big sacrifices to send their children here,” said the principal of a South Dublin fee-charging school. “They don’t have the second car, they don’t go abroad on holiday. They can just about afford the fees.”

The Department of Education argues that private schools have access to financial reserves that other schools do not.

In addition, it says the fee-charging sector receives more than €100 million a year from the State in the form of salaries for teachers, special needs assistants and other grants.

Some principals, however, say they are being progressively excluded from State funding.

They point to changes introduced in 2009, at the height of the recession when public finances were under acute strain, to provide fewer State-funded teachers.

Since then teachers have been funded by the State at a pupil-teacher ratio of 19:1 in the “free” sector, but at 23:1 in the fee-charging sector. This means fee-charging schools end up employing a significant number of their own staff using private funds.

Private schools also have lower guidance and counselling allocations and face barriers accessing a range of grants that are paid automatically to the free sector.

In more recent times, the fee-charging sector has been excluded from automatic access to Covid funding to make schools safer and, this year, from emergency funding for heating and lighting.

One principal commented: “Do we really want a situation like in the UK where our [fee-charging] schools are only for wealthy international students and the super-rich? Because that is the direction of travel we’re on. There is a deliberate policy to exclude us from State support ... politicians just don’t want to fund us.”

Some Government TDs, however, say that politically it is difficult to justify funding for the fee-charging sector when other areas such as disadvantaged schools, transport and special education have urgent funding requirements.

As far as principals are concerned, an even bigger threat to funding of the fee-charging sector than the cost-of-living crisis may be looming, however.

While successive governments have presided over an effective lowering in grant support for the private sector, Sinn Féin and Labour have pledged to end State funding of the private sector altogether.

If this happens, private schools acknowledge that they will have two broad choices: dramatically increase their fees or enter the “free scheme”.

Few principals say the option of entering the free scheme is appealing. They say they would lose many of their privately employed teachers and support staff who provide a broader array of subjects or extracurricular activities that might not be possible otherwise.

Some within the school sector question whether this would be the case. Kilkenny College – whose past pupils include Jonathan Swift and the philosopher George Berkeley – left the fee-charging sector and joined the free scheme in 2013. Its student numbers have since rebounded. The Royal School in Cavan is the latest fee-charging school to join the free sector. It says it hopes to increase its enrolment and begin a new period of investment over the coming years.

In the meantime, most private schools are trying to estimate the extent to which fees will need to rise in the next academic year to cover rising costs.

“At the end of the day, we are all businesses, and you run on your income, not on any rainy day money or anything that’s stashed away, you have to make it,” says Mark Boobbeyer of St Columba’s. “If your fuel bills are going up, if your food costs are going up, if your transport costs are going up, all of these things, the only way you can pay for them is by passing that cost on to the customer ...

“I guess it’s a political reality that many people don’t particularly like fee-paying schools, and therefore politicians are not keen to be giving fee-paying schools more money than they have to, or than they’re obliged to ... but generally speaking we don’t expect money from the department, except for our teachers, so we’re used to that.”