Budget cuts last year that yielded savings of €3m are at heart of dispute

 

THE BUDGET cuts announced last year in ancillary grants for Protestant schools, covering such expenses as caretaker and secretarial supports, are at the core of the current dispute.

Essentially, all voluntary Protestant schools were removed from the free education scheme – a move that has yielded savings of close to €3 million.

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

The block grant for Protestant schools – covering capitation, tuition and boarding grants – remains in place at a cost of €6.25 million.

There are 26 Protestant second-level schools in the Republic. Five are comprehensive schools, while the remainder are voluntary secondary schools.

Most of these are secondary boarding schools providing Protestant education to a dispersed population. Protestant parents’ groups have pointed to the misconception that Protestant fee-charging schools are elite enclaves catering for wealthy families.

The reality, they say, is that Protestant schools provide a secondary education to all families, irrespective of means.

The criticisms from Dr Neill represent the latest salvo in a sustained battle between the Protestant schools and the Department of Education.

Dr Neill has criticised an “unbelievable lack of understanding” by the Department of Education.

But Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has given little indication he will back down; he was forced to tell the Dáil yesterday he was not “working to take out” the Protestant community.

In the Dáil the Minister pointed out that the block grant for those attending Protestant fee-charging schools was not available to those attending Catholic fee-charging schools.

This, he maintains, is a targeted support for the Protestant community wishing to attend Protestant second-level schools.

“The block grant operates precisely to take account of the fact that the Protestant community in the Archbishop’s own words ‘is very mixed and ranging across the sociological spectrum in terms of income’.”

In the Dáil the Minister reiterated his invitation to the archbishop and the schools concerned to come forward with proposals that deal in a targeted manner with particular problems.

But Protestant schools say the October budget fundamentally changed the way the State views and treats minority faith schools.

Since 1966, the Government has provided supports to Protestant schools, a recognition that “free schooling” was not always available to Protestant children.