Fee-paying schools report better results as recovery takes hold
Many parents make huge sacrifices so that they can afford private education
Séamus Hennessy, head of admissions at Cistercian College in Roscrea, with some pupils: “We’re now starting to see real change . . . we’ve seen huge growth in numbers, and expressions of interest for other years are growing”
In September 2011, in an office in the leafy confines of Glenstal Abbey School in Murroe, Co Limerick, director of admissions Noelle O’Brien sat and considered how the school had haemorrhaged almost a fifth of its students in just four years.
Admissions were at their lowest ebb since the start of the economic crisis , and enrolment for the year ahead at the fee-paying school was at just 182 students, a fall of 18 per cent since 2007.
“The economic downturn had a significant impact on school numbers,” O’Brien says now. To address these challenges, the board of governors redeveloped the school by increasing its capacity and offering day boarding for the first time.
Since then, there has been “steady growth” year on year and the number of students has grown by 29 per cent to 235 with “continued growth expected for the foreseeable future”.
The story is not an uncommon one. The private school sector was under severe financial pressure during the recession, and many schools considered entering the public system to remain viable. Now, many are reporting a return to buoyancy, with some suggesting numbers are exceeding those from the height of the boom.
O’Brien says Glenstal is “well oversubscribed” for first years in September 2016. “We’re already looking at our number of registrations for the following year. We’ll operate a waiting list now. The outlook for 2017 and beyond is positive. The registrations are already significant. We would have numbers on our books for years but they are still coming in. My expectation at this point is we will again be oversubscribed for first years in 2017.”
She says the school, where the fees for seven-day boarding and day students cost €17,950 and €10,600 a year respectively, expects to enrol 250 students next year. “It’s a significant increase,” she says.
Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin 6, says there was “certainly a major dip” in applications to the school during the recession, and “particularly in relation to boarding”.
In the last 12 months, she says there has “definitely been a surge” and the number of people applying for boarding is “way up” with first year for 2016 now full. This, she says, would have been “absolutely unheard of” from 2009 on.
The “leanest years” for the school came in 2011, 2012, and 2013 when it was under “severe financial pressure”. It was forced to make “a lot of cutbacks”, but Ennis says it “never scrimped on teaching”.
In terms of its fees, which are €17,540 a year for seven-day boarding and €6,960 for day students, Ennis says the school could not afford to reduce them. “We were already struggling very badly as it was. Most parents were very good payers but we were very accommodating with them and arranged a number of payment plans.”
It was from 2010-2013 when the crisis “really kicked in” for Cistercian College in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Head of admissions Séamus Hennessy says enrolment numbers were down by almost a third in 2013.
In this academic year, he says, there has been “huge growth” in enrolments and expressions of interest. “We’re now starting to see real change. Particularly this year we’ve seen huge growth in numbers, and expressions of interest for other years are growing.”
“It would have gone to those numbers during the recession but it’s increasing year on year,” says Hennessy. “We’re hoping to reach our capacity over the next year or two.”
At St Columba’s College in Whitechurch, Co Dublin, senior fees for seven-day boarders will be €22,350 next year, while day students will pay €8,000. Principal Lindsay Haslett says the school remained full during the recession but it became “more difficult” to recruit. Applications, however, are “beginning to get back to 2008 levels”.
“We currently have no boarding places available, and we have a high level of interest for next year,” he says. “It fluctuated between boarding and day pupils but we have 243 boarding places here and those are currently full.”
Apart from “a bit of a dip” in 2008, St Vincent’s Castleknock College in Dublin also had steady numbers in the downturn. Principal Oliver Murphy says there has been a “huge increase” in the last three years with the number of applications rising by 20-25 per cent.
“We’ve gone from four classes to five,” he says. “We’ve been oversubscribed and have had a waiting list for the last three years. It’s actually better than the boom times at the moment. Even at the height of the boom I don’t think we were ever oversubscribed.”
The school does not cater for boarders but fees for day pupils are €5,630 a year. “Of course, there were parents whose businesses went bust or couldn’t pay, but we were sympathetic towards that,” says Murphy. “We froze our fees for a few years during the recession. The maximum increase in any year was 2 per cent so we really tried to make sure we were not making it too difficult for parents.”
In terms of the families that send children to fee-paying schools, the stereotype during the boom was of middle-class parents or visiting foreign diplomats. Now, according to the schools, the profile is changing.
“In our school you would have a very wide spectrum,” says Murphy. “We are not a swanky school. You hear every accent from Dublin accents to country accents. You see every colour. You meet every creed and none.”
He says families “make sacrifices” so they can afford to send their children to fee-paying schools. “It’s very common for parents to make those sacrifices elsewhere in their lives. They value education and are happy to do it,” he says. “This is not money that falls out of their back pocket. People are saving up. There are more of those now than there would have been in the past. We have a lot of those kinds of parents.
“There are people from all professions. This is not a school for lawyers, doctors and accountants. This is not an elitist school in any respect. We have people from the city right out to the hinterlands of the country.”
“We have Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, as well as people with no religion,” he says. “We have students coming from overseas. We have Spaniards, Mexicans – if you walk through the college, you will meet people whose families originate from Africa, the Orient, the Middle East, Europe, Pakistan.”
At Glenstal Abbey, there are students from all over Ireland and from overseas, with France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, Singapore and Qatar all represented. Alexandra says it “has never been a college for rich or privileged girls”.
The principal at another fee-paying school, who did not wish to be named, says schools “along the Dart line” tend to have students from wealthier families because of the areas they come from.
“Students going to fee-paying schools in other areas will almost certainly be coming from double-income families,” he says. “You have guards, teachers, public sector employees, but because they have two incomes and they make that additional sacrifice, they can do it. That profile hasn’t changed.”
Neil O’Hare, a parent who sent all four of his children to fee-paying schools, says the sacrifices involved were “incredibly tough”. A public servant working in St James’s Hospital, he sent his two sons to Castleknock College and his two daughters to Loreto College St Stephen’s Green.
“Many people with small kids ask us about going down the private route and the one thing I say to them is not to take the decision lightly,” he says. “It has been very, very tough. We were lucky in that our mortgage was quite low in the last few years. We wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.
“Family holidays are non-existent. Family cars are nine to 10 years old. Before sending the kids to school, we would probably have changed the car every couple of years. You don’t get to invest in the house. You just don’t do any of those things because you pay the bills, the mortgage and the school fees, and after that there’s nothing left.”
In terms of whether the sacrifices have been worth it, Murphy says it’s “very hard to know” how his children would have fared in the public system, but that they have “done well academically” and are “quite well rounded”.
A lot of that, he says, “comes from the school”.
“They all really enjoyed their time. They feel a very strong bond with their schools. They have good friends. Is that the schools or their nature? I can’t answer that but on balance you’d have to say the schools have had a strong influence.
“There is a lot of diversity and they can accommodate different interests academically or otherwise. Our eldest son, who was the first to go to Castleknock, was a big rugby player and he wanted to go to a rugby-playing school.”
“Being away from home makes you more independent and being around the same people the whole time helps to build stronger relationships,” he says. “There are more distractions at home in terms of studying at night. I also like how structured things are in terms of timetables and so on. I’ve built good friendships here. The only negative is that you lose contact with people at home when you’re away.”
A report by the Department of Education published in January 2013 said fee-paying schools had a discretionary income of €81.3 million from fees that was not available to schools in the public sector.
There are 51 fee-paying schools in the State. Figures from the Department of Education show the State spent almost €97 million on salaries in fee-paying schools in 2012/2013. In 2008/2009, this figure was almost €110 million.
Meanwhile, the capital funding paid to fee-paying schools has almost doubled from €2.2 million in 2008 to just over €4 million in 2013.
Some schools expressed concerns about commenting publicly on the State support they receive but were privately critical of the “brutal cuts” to teacher-pupil ratios in fee-paying schools. It has risen from 19:1 to 23:1.
“One of the big concerns is whether the State is going to continue to up the ratio, which would mean we will increasingly have to fund our teachers out of our private funds,” says one. “That’s a big concern. If we do, does that mean our fees are going to go way beyond the reach of most people? That’s certainly not the kind of school we want to be.”