Are school fees fair?

Belvedere College’s ‘social diversity programme’, which features in the new RTÉ documentary The Scholarship, offers a private education to pupils who can’t afford the Dublin school’s fees. Critics say such schemes wouldn’t be needed if our education system were more equal

This week thousands of children have been going back to school. Most are moving up a grade. Some are moving from primary school to their local secondary school. And 15 are going from ordinary primary schools in disadvantaged areas of Dublin to Belvedere College, the private school located just to the north of the city centre.

This is part of the school's social-diversity programme, which offers places at the school to boys whose families can't afford fees, and next week a new RTÉ documentary series, The Scholarship, follows boys and their families as they apply for places on the programme.

It’s a powerful documentary: warm, nonjudgmental, matter-of-fact. The first episode features five children and their parents, some of whom didn’t finish secondary school, all considering the difference a place at Belvedere might make to their lives.

There’s a Polish boy, a boy from a Traveller family and two children of disabled parents. They’re smart, funny kids. One has kept a portfolio of his drawings since he was in senior infants. Another watches an hour of world news every morning. A third wants to be a barrister. (His primary-school teacher notes that five other children in the class now want to be barristers too.) For all of these children and their families, a place at private school is seen as a way out of a cycle of poverty and educational disadvantage.


But laudable as Belvedere’s social-diversity scheme is – it’s very well run and ambitious in scope – the educational disadvantage it sets out to address is arguably made more problematic by the existence of private schools in the first place.

Ireland has only 55 fee-paying schools, with about 25,000 students between them, but their graduates have a disproportionate influence in society. A recent report in this newspaper noted that more than half of the Cabinet attended private schools.

Parents choose to pay for private education because they believe it confers an advantage on their children, but the nature of that advantage is the subject of debate.

A study of public and private education in Ireland published in 2011 by two Israeli academics, Danny Pfeffermann and Victoria Landsman, found that when social class and enrolment biases were accounted for, public schools in Ireland performed better on average than private schools. (The researchers focused on performance in maths.)

"The much-vaunted effects of private schools could well be a mirage," says Kevin Denny, an economics lecturer at University College Dublin who has written extensively about education. "There was the recent court case where the judge said a boy should go to a certain school because it was 'by common consensus' the best in the country. That's not a completely stupid idea, but there's no evidence for that, and I'd expect a higher standard of evidence from a judge . . .

“A lot more is believed about the effects of private education than is actually known. People just assume it’s better than the public options. The people who send their kids there certainly tend to believe it, and they tend to be very influential in society – academics or judges or journalists – so their views are probably over-represented in the dialogue. But it’s not necessarily true.

"The problem in Ireland is that we don't have the data and [that where we do have data] we're not comparing like with like. The kinds of kids who go to Gonzaga [the private Jesuit college in Ranelagh] and their parents are different from the kids who go to [non-fee-paying schools]. So what you really want to compare is the value added.

“The two Israeli statisticians, when they allowed for the selection issue – the fact that the kids who select into one school are quite different from the kids who select into another – found that there was no real difference [in the quality of education] . . . The reason they do differently is not better education but because the parents and kids are different.”

But, for many parents, choosing a private school is not just about education in the narrow sense. Denny believes that fee-paying schools also facilitate a sort of class consolidation. Yes, some people make sacrifices to send their children to private school, but in so doing they are ensuring that their children will meet few people outside the middle or upper classes. This financial segregation worries some but appeals to others.

“The people who send their kids to Gonzaga or Blackrock, it’s not just for Leaving Cert results. It’s for their social circle and whether you want them to play rugby and want them to grow up with certain groups of people,” says Denny.

“I’m not sure that kind of polarisation is good for society. I’m very keen on diversity. Having grown up in an undiverse background . . . I think people should be in diversified environments: socially, racially, whatever.”

It's this class consolidation that is, arguably, what's so beneficial about a Belvedere education for the scholarship students. "These boys could well have had a good education in the local Deis school or another school," says Kim Bartley, the maker of the documentary series, referring to the Department of Education's Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools scheme for educational inclusion.

“But, realistically, going to Belvedere will have a huge effect on their lives. They will have a network of friends born into families of lawyers or doctors . . . It’s completely over their heads now, but some of the kids they are in the same year as have well-known or wealthy parents in positions of power in society. That’s the reality.”

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as opposed to those already hailing from privileged households, access to these networks is particularly powerful.

“It’s not that if they don’t go to Belvedere they have no hope of progressing, but it does open up a realm that none of our children would otherwise experience,” says Derry Amphlett, principal of Our Lady Immaculate primary school in Darndale, some of whose students have received a Belvedere scholarship.

“If you take Darndale, everyone who lives there is from similar backgrounds. Whereas if they go to Belvedere it’s definitely opening vistas for them that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Later he adds: “There is a question of social justice there. Just because a child is born and grows up in Darndale, should they not have the same possibilities and access to opportunity as children born and brought up in other areas?”

Karl Kitching, an educational sociologist at University College Cork, sees private education as just one element in "a broader consumerisation of education, or marketisation of education, both in the private and the public domains. There's clear evidence that that trend towards marketisation creates inequality and exacerbates inequality."

This is a perspective partially shared by Belvedere's headmaster, Gerry Foley, who also believes that unequal access to education is a much bigger issue than fee-paying schools, and that these schools are scapegoated in the debate.

Foley, who stresses that he doesn’t want to be seen as a representative for fee-paying schools in general, says that Government spending on education is too low and points to grind schools, music lessons, trips to the Gaeltacht and all the other ways middle-class parents gain an educational advantage.

“The debate should be about the quality of education that the State provides. Instead what has happened is there’s been a convenient distraction in talking about these schools, which are an anomaly in ways, a tiny minority.”

So he rejects the idea that fee-paying schools enshrine a segregational society. Schools, he says, reflect society; they don’t create it. “The people who send their children to this school are not doing it to keep their children away from other people. They want their kids to get a Jesuit education. That’s a key thing for a lot of the parents.”

Ultimately what fee-paying schools offer, he says, is choice. “Education is not a commodity. It’s a very personal choice.”

Market principles
Karl Kitching is a little unsure of such terminology. "In this context words like 'choice' mean a particular kind of choice, a particular kind of freedom based on market principles that don't protect the lower echelons of society and force them to compete in an unfair situation. The only people who actively get to choose are middle-class people."

The Belvedere scholarship has been, since the late 1980s, a noble attempt to offset the exclusionary nature of fee-paying education. Kim Bartley came away from the film-making experience impressed by what the college has achieved. Kevin Denny is also positive about it.

“For the kids in question it can make a huge difference,” he says. “And small differences can have a big effect in poorer, disadvantaged communities where you mightn’t know anyone who has gone to university. I wouldn’t knock things like this. We just don’t have enough of them.”

But, more generally for critics of private education, the altruism of Belvedere and the kindness of its staff to the children they choose to help sit uneasily alongside the inequity of the wider system. Educational disadvantage and educational privilege are not unrelated issues for academics such as Denny.

“It’s hard to justify why kids are so dependent on the lottery of birth,” he says. “It’s not just about fairness. It’s also about efficiency. Ireland as a going enterprise needs to make best use of its people. Talented kids in Ballyfermot and Ballymun aren’t finding their potential. That’s not just bad for them. It’s bad for Ireland. We’re losing people due to accident of birth, and that’s not a good policy in the long run.”

The Scholarship is on RTÉ One on Monday at 9.35pm