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Why fees for Ireland’s most prestigious private schools are on the rise

Leaders in the fee-charging sector defend their right to exist as they face increased exclusion from the public purse

At Alexandra College in Dublin, a private girls’ secondary school in Co Dublin, fees are on the rise. It’s a similar story across most of the 50 fee-charging secondary schools in Ireland, where charges are up 5-17 per cent this year.

Spiralling energy and transport costs are some of the reasons, but another is a source of frustration for Barbara Ennis, principal at Alexandra College, and other school leaders in the private sector: a growing gap in funding between “free” and fee-charging schools.

Under this policy, the Department of Education gives private schools proportionately less funding than schools in the “free sector” on the basis that fee-charging schools have access to financial reserves, which other schools do not.

The sector, says Ennis, is being excluded from a growing number of State grants. As a result, private schools such as Alexandra College – where fees have climbed to more than €8,000 a year for day pupils and up to €20,000 for boarders – say they have to pay the salaries for many teachers and other supports out of their own funds.


“I think, ethically, it is very wrong. The parents who choose to send their children to our school do it for a reason. They want the best for them. They are investing in their children’s education. It’s not about elitism or moving in the right circles. It’s about getting the best for their children. This is about ethics, morality and fairness for taxpaying parents who are simply making a choice,” she says.

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

An analysis of day-pupil charges for the sector shows fees for St Columba’s College in Dublin 16, which is the most expensive overall for day pupils, have broken through the €10,000 barrier for the first time (€10,258, up 6.5 per cent on last year).

It is followed by Cistercian College, Co Tipperary (€8,600, up 4 per cent), the King’s Hospital, Palmerstown, Dublin 20 (€8,484), Alexandra College (€8,472, up 6 per cent), Rathdown School, Co Dublin (€8,200, up 5 per cent), St Gerard’s in Bray, Co Wicklow (€8,169, up 5 per cent) and St Andrew’s College, Booterstown, Co Dublin (€8,100, up 5 per cent).

* The table, above, includes fees for fee-charging schools who responded to queries from The Irish Times on their charges for the current school year only. It was updated on December 18th to correct a factual inaccuracy.

Boarding costs are higher still. St Columba’s is also the most expensive seven-day boarding option (€22,984-€27,588); followed by Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare (€23,150-26,623); Rathdown School, Co Dublin (€22,650); and Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick (€21,704).

Until 2009, the State treated fee-paying and free education schools equally in paying teachers’ salaries.

In the depths of austerity-era cost cutting, however, the practice proved controversial, especially when a report commissioned by then minister for education Ruairí Quinn estimated that the private sector had access to about €80 million in financial reserves.

On foot of changes, the free sector continued to be funded on the basis of one teacher for 19 students, while fee-charging schools were funded for one teacher for every 23 students, resulting in private schools digging deeper into their discretionary income.

The policy has since extended to include lower rates of grant supports across a number of areas.

Most recently, students in the fee-charging sector were excluded from the free schoolbooks initiative in October’s budget and, more recently, a drive to provide free solar panels across primary and second level schools to cut heating costs.

However, private schools still receive the vast majority of their funding from the State.

Latest data shows private schools received €112 million in State funding in 2022, the vast bulk of which went on salaries.

This funding is proving controversial, with both Sinn Féin and Labour pledging to withdraw State support for fee-charging schools over a number of years if elected to government.

Labour’s education spokesman, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, says education is the “great liberator” and society’s greatest weapon in removing obstacles that prevent individuals fulfilling their potential. He argues that a “toxic link” between money and education has far-reaching effects.

“Nothing perpetuates inequality quite like the Irish education system,” he adds. “Can we genuinely stand over a circumstance where money that could be prioritised elsewhere is being used to prop up schools that exclude those without deep pockets?”

One Government source argues that the current two-tier funding policy towards fee-charging schools is the right one, especially in the context of competing funding priorities.

“We’re providing extra funding to expand Deis schools [those based in disadvantaged areas] to improve the life chances for children everywhere. I can’t see how anyone can argue that this funding would be better spend by funnelling it into private schools,” says the source.

It’s way too simplistic a suggestion to close fee-paying schools, because the State can’t afford to close fee-paying schools

—  Ronan Walsh, principal of Sutton Park School

Private school principals, for the most part, acknowledge this. They realise they will win few over in the court of public opinion in seeking more funding. For most it’s a case of trying to prevent further cuts to the sector.

Sutton Park School is one of a handful of private schools that managed to freeze its fees – €7,995 – this year. Principal Ronan Walsh says his biggest concern is maintaining the school’s pupil-teacher ratio at 23 pupils to one publicly funded teacher. “I think the hope is that it doesn’t go any more severe than that,” he says

Proposals floated by Opposition parties to cut funding for the sector altogether would prove far more complex to implement in reality, he says. The cost to the State of taking so many pupils into the free sector would be considerable, he says.

“It’s way too simplistic a suggestion to close fee-paying schools, because the State can’t afford to close fee paying schools,” he says. “So, I think that’s what’s going to help us to maintain the current situation with any incoming government.”

More broadly, other private principals argue that the depiction of the private sector as finishing schools for the privileged ruling classes is far removed from reality.

“We have lots of families of relatively ordinary means who make big sacrifices to send their children here,” says 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. Why should they be denied free schoolbooks, for example? It’s hardly fair. Legally, it must be vulnerable.”

Instead of a drive to make everything the same, we should continue to provide a diversity of educational offerings

—  Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College

Another principal says the sector is being made out to be creation of the elite, when its origins have more to do with underfunding of the wider education sector

“Any school under the patronage of a religious congregation is private, which is about half of all secondary schools – and they all used to charge fees,” says one private principal.

“The only difference is other schools made the decision after 1967 [when free second-level education was introduced] to enter the free scheme. We didn’t, on the basis that State funding wasn’t enough to cover our costs.”

For Barbara Ennis of Alexandra College, meanwhile, the funding of the fee-charging sector is providing choice for parents, as well as a return for society and the exchequer.

“Instead of a drive to make everything the same, we should continue to provide a diversity of educational offerings. If funding is cut, or we enter the free scheme, we would have a lot less freedom to innovate and to be the pioneers that we are. We’d be under greater control of the department,” she says.

“We have a large international community here, with 27 different languages spoken. Many overseas students who come here to board stay on for third level and end up working here, adding to the economy. It’s an important revenue stream not just for us, but for Ireland. Do we really want to shut that off?”

* The table on fees for fee-charging secondary schools was updated on December 18th to correct a factual inaccuracy.