'Am I giving my children an advantage? I'm trying my hardest'


A PARENT'S VIEW:Those of us who opt to send their children to fee-paying schools should not be demonised – we have a right to choose the best option for our children, argues ORLAITH CARMODY

Some people describe the kind of school I’ve chosen for my three sons as “fee-paying”, implying that I pay for their education. In fact I don’t. The State does that, as it is has undertaken to pay the salaries of teachers in second-level schools to a defined ratio, based on the number of students in the school.

I pay for my three sons’ accommodation and supervision at school, their books, sports, music lessons, tours and all the other bits and pieces that every parent of teenagers knows about.

After a lot of thought, I have deliberately chosen this kind of education, in a school with a Jesuit tradition, because I believe it will help to bring out the best in my boys, and hopefully teach them something about giving back to society. This is my right as a parent.

Since September 1st, the Department of Education and Science has increased the ratio of pupils to teachers in State-run second-level schools from 18 pupils per teacher to 19. Times are tough, and bigger class sizes are inevitable. For fee-paying schools, the medicine was even harsher: one teacher for every 20 pupils.

This is the first time since 1967 that a distinction of this nature has been introduced to the system, and it will affect 28,000 students in 55 so-called fee-paying schools around the country.

Things could get worse. The Irish Timesrecently reported how the Department of Finance has recommended a ratio of one teacher to 38 pupils in fee-paying schools.

I believe this singling out of the fee-paying sector is blatant discrimination.

My children have the same right to the provision of teaching services as every other child in the State, regardless of whether I choose to have them educated at a local school, with an expectation of an informal annual “voluntary contribution” from me; or at a school with a formal annual contribution that I choose to pay, out of my after-tax income, for additional educational supports.

The bottom line here is that pupils educated “privately” or at fee-paying schools currently cost the State much less than those educated at non-fee-paying schools, so it would appear that the Department of Finance is engaged in a spot of economic nonsense.

Close down private schools tomorrow and all these children land into the State system looking for classroom accommodation, bus transport and per-capita grants, all of which will have to be funded by the taxpayer at enormous expense. This will be on top of the estimated €100 million the Department of Education and Science already spends on teachers’ salaries in fee-paying schools.

Memo to the Department: These teachers will have to be paid, irrespective of the kind of school in which they teach.

The sole alternative is to remove State support, leaving a few, very elite schools with prohibitive fee levels.

In my view, our fee-paying school sector is not, in any sense, elitist. Am I giving my children an advantage? Make no mistake about it: I’m trying my hardest.

My grandmother was a teacher sin a rural primary school who had been lectured by Eamon de Valera at college in Carysfort. She often concealed above-age children from the school inspector; children of 13 or 14 who she had persuaded, often with great difficulty, to stay in school for a seventh or even an eighth class, knowing that it was the only education they would ever get.

A determined widow, she coached her daughter, my mother, to win a scholarship to Monaghan’s Louis Convent in the 1940s. My mother then coached me to win a scholarship to Mount Anville in the 1970s, and despite not being able to go there, I have that all-for-education tradition coursing in my veins.

Now I run the risk of a double “elitist” charge, because not only have I chosen a school with a particular ethos for my sons, but one that is boarding as well. But you don’t lightly choose a school that costs €16,000 a year. You know exactly the cost to you, in so many ways.

But it is worth all the hours their Dad and I work because of the independent, grounded, thinking individuals who I believe will emerge at the far end, with the ambition and hopefully the ability to make a difference. At the school, Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, they call it becoming “Men for Others”, and I see it demonstrated every single time I’m there.

A friend of mine at the school, a lone parent, gets very irate when people describe these schools as elitist. She works every hour in the day to pay for her son’s keep, but is happy to do so because of how he has grown over the past few years. She says that it is her choice to work hard, pay her taxes and do the best she can for her son, rather than “cream the State’’ (her expression) for a house and various allowances, which she figures would probably leave her better off.

I have never met a spoiled brat at the school, either pupil or parent, only people who, like myself, value children and their education above all else. We also value justice, and would like to see the departments of Education and Science and Finance respect the 1967 Education Act, which promised equal access to teaching services for all children.

We don’t have elite schools in this country, as they do across the water. We have privately-managed schools where education is provided by the State, and where after that parents choose to have a particular ethos, Catholic, Protestant or other, taught to their children at their own expense. They are populated by the sons and daughters of ordinary, hard-working people exercising their democratic right to choose.

Orlaith Carmody, a former RTÉ journalist, is managing director of Aerga Productions, based in Bellewstown, Co Meath


Ireland's fee-paying schools

56- Number of fee-charging second-level schools in the State

32- Catholic schools

21- Protestant schools

2- Inter-denominational schools

1- Jewish school

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