Gold standard school must still convince parents of its merits


St Raphaela's, in Stillorgan, Dublin, lies just outside the so-called "golden circle", where five of the top-10 feeder schools for universities are located. This non- fee-paying school has outstanding teachers and facilities, but with the push towards private education, some south Dublin parents still need reassurance about its merits. Louise Holdenreports

It's a Catholic school with strong academic traditions, cradled in a wealthy suburb of south Co Dublin, on a new campus with state-of-the-art sporting facilities. Presumably St Raphaela's in Stillorgan has got a waiting list as long as an AstroTurf hockey pitch. Not according to principal Eileen O'Donnell, who fears that the school may actually lose numbers if current trends continue.

The school has everything that Mount Anville, Alexandra College, St Andrew's College and other secondary schools in the area can boast, but lacks the one feature that many Dublin parents now demand in education - fees.

"There are many excellent schools in the area, but if you scratch the surface there's very little difference between all of us," says O'Donnell. "I seem to spend a lot of my time reassuring parents that they don't need to feel guilty about choosing a non-fee-paying school for their daughter. They are not short-changing them."

St Raphaela's is not an ailing school. The numbers have held steady and the school is thriving, thanks to generous ongoing support from the trustees, the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus order. However, O'Donnell has been watching the flight to private schooling in Dublin over the last decade and she's determined not to let St Raphaela's fall foul of this trend.

O'Donnell is in regular contact with principals from other schools in south Co Dublin and is aware that all schools face the same challenges and stresses. It's bizarre, she muses, that some schools in the area are setting up marketing committees to manage their profiles. It's a very localised phenomenon and one she cannot escape, either professionally or personally.

"I live in this area. I hear the talk at sports days. Everyone's talking about where they're sending their children. If you say you're sending them to a non-fee-paying school you have to explain yourself. There's an expectation that everyone wants to pay for education and if you don't, you have to justify that."

Justifying St Raphaela's is not difficult. Owned by a trusteeship of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus order, the school is part of a successful international network of 140 schools on four continents. Like St Andrew's College in Booterstown, the school has an international ethos and is favoured by ambassadorial families and students from the US, Denmark, South Africa, the Philippines and Nigeria. Irish students come for miles around; from Enniskerry, Rathfarnham, Ballyogan and Glencullen.

The school has made a name for itself in basketball, music and hockey. One million euro was recently spent on an AstroTurf hockey pitch on the school grounds. Teams from St Raphaela's have also excelled in the Model United Nations, the President's Award (Gaisce) and the Green Schools programme.

Students from St Raphaela's have a high transfer rate to further study, with 50 per cent going on to university, and the remainder pursuing education abroad or in the institute of technologies or post-leaving certificate sector. These transfer rates, while impressive, are not enough to put Raphaela's at the top of the school league tables. The principal is unabashed.

"We have students here with a wide range of abilities. We accommodate this diversity. I have spoken to parents who have been told by other schools that their daughters wouldn't survive in their academic atmosphere, that they would be better off in a less academic school. We are no less academic, we just make room for everybody. Because of this, we won't top the league tables."

O'Donnell and her team are aware that parents want their choice of schools justified, and look to league tables and other indicators. "Parents read league tables, and they make decisions based on them. Parents of students at this school read them, and wonder where we are. Perhaps they wonder why we don't have full waiting lists extending into the 2020s."

Determined to provide staff and parents with reassurance, the board of management at the school keeps a close eye on the school's performance.

"We issued a survey, similar to a Whole School Evaluation, to all our parents last year to get their assessment of our performance across a range of areas. Without going into the details, suffice it to say that we deliver for parents.

"When parents talk to me about their daughter's education, they are honest about the thinking process they go through," says O'Donnell.

"They tell me that they have put their names down for Mount Anville and Alexandra College as well. They ask me why they would choose St Raphaela's over a fee-paying school. I tell them the education that we offer is second to none. We look after all the needs of our students - not just the academic."

The issue that eats at many a parent's conscience is not the school itself, but the student body. While a private and a public school may offer similar facilities, teaching standards and ethos, the private school is perceived to draw students from well-to-do homes where education is prioritised and aspirations are high. We all want our daughters sitting next to a would-be cardiologist, in the hope that something rubs off.

O'Donnell dismisses any notion that aspirations are lower in the non-fee- paying sector. "Good students do very well here - we have a lot of high flyers who go on to do medicine and law and other prestige courses. But we have students with different ambitions too, and we support them with the same enthusiasm.

"The balance is good for everyone. Students in our school whose parents value education and involve themselves in their daughter's development do well. Students with those advantages do as well in our school as they do anywhere."

Ultimately, O'Donnell has had to make the decision for her own sons and, like a lot of parents, she agonised over it.

"I felt the pressure like everyone else. I had a range of schools to choose from for my sons, some non-fee-paying, some private. My sons are academic and it wasn't an easy choice to make when the expectation was that we would choose a private school. In the end we chose non-fee-paying schools and it couldn't have worked out better."