‘We feel that Protestants are effectively being persecuted by the Labour element in Government when it comes to education, and we need the Taoiseach’s help.” So said Cllr Neale Richmond of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council last month, as a group of Protestant Fine Gael councillors wrote to the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, asking him to address increases in pupil-teacher ratios in fee-charging Protestant schools.
The debate has continued in The Irish Times letters page, and elsewhere, in the weeks since.
The roots of the issue go back to 1967, when the State brought in a scheme to provide free second-level education to all children. At the time, there was a network of fee-paying boarding schools; of the 54 fee-charging second-level schools left in the State today, 19 are Protestant.
Since the 1960s, then, Protestant fee-charging schools were recognised as distinct from other fee-charging secondary schools. Since 2008, pupil-teacher ratios for Protestant fee-charging schools has trebled, so that from this month the ratio will stand at 23 to 1, compared with 19 to 1 in the free education sector.
As Julie Carr, a mother with children in secondary school, wrote in The Irish Times in August: "The debate on State support for fee-charging schools has been characterised by a tendency to inaccurately label Protestant families who choose to educate their children in such schools as elite and well-heeled. This masks the reality faced by many Protestant families."
Midleton College, a fee-paying Protestant co-educational school in Co Cork, has existed as a day and boarding school for second-level pupils for more than 300 years. About a quarter of the students are boarders. The full boarding fee is €9,399 per annum, while day fees are €4,701.
One argument goes that if schools such as this one are forced to enter the free education scheme, the State will have to pick up the tab for that parents currently pay. The fee-paying schools also point out that, unlike some free-education schools, they alone have carried the capital costs for their schools.
These schools are asking the Government to continue to pay for their teachers and to provide block grants to some students. “This school exists in the first instance to serve the Protestant community of east and north Cork,” explains Midleton College principal Simon Thompson.
“Beyond that, we also serve the local community. If a family makes a commitment to the school, we make a commitment to the family. I think there is a growing awareness among the general public that should schools like ours move to the free scheme, then there is going to be a real additional annual cost to the State.”
If fee-paying Protestant schools do move to the free education system, there is a worry that parents will still be asked to subsidise the schools' activities. One former fee-paying Protestant school that did move into the scheme is Kilkenny College, where parents were asked to make a voluntary contribution of €250 in this school year.
If day students at Kilkenny College want to partake in a range of activities and services from 3.30pm until 10pm, including meals, supervised study, sporting and other clubs, there is a charge of €2,500. The college points out it has an extensive bursary scheme in place to ensure that every student, regardless of economic status, can participate if they so wish.
“My view is that the cost of the feecharging minority moving to the free scheme sector at a time of straitened resources will mean additional costs to the State and parents,” says Simon Thompson. “If our school moved to the scheme, the State would be taking on the costs of the teachers as well as the capital costs of future developments of the college and also reinstating a substantial range of grants withdrawn in 2008 and 2009.
“The boarding element needs to be taken into account also. It is a very significant challenge to maintain it, and we provide more bed nights than local hotels in town. We also provide in excess of 30,000 meals a year and we are subject to the same HSE regulations as other residential organisations.”
A new building on Midleton College campus, the Colton Building, was completed recently at a cost of €825,000. A fundraising drive to build a new sports complex in the next 18 months is ongoing.
Paul Colton, Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross (after whom the new building is named), believes that Protestant boarding schools are not entirely suited to the free-education scheme.
“The free scheme was not designed for boarding schools,” he says. “That is why we didn’t fit in originally. With boarding schools, you have responsibilities and liabilities that the State won’t pay for, like catering and nurses and 24-hour supervision. So, the Department of Education needs to clarify: who will take responsibility for all of that if a school like ours goes into a free scheme?”
Limited choice of schools
Noel Ryan has two daughters in Midleton College, and he argues there was limited choice when it came to sending his children to a local secondary school in keeping with his Church of Ireland background.
“There are three local secondary schools in our area,” he says. “We are a Church of Ireland family, and while the other schools are fine schools, I find the ethos of Midleton College very appealing.”
Ryan takes issue with the accusation that parents sending their children to fee-paying Protestant schools are from an affluent socioeconomic background.
“We get no capitation grant and nothing towards ground care or maintenance or summer works scheme, unlike other schools. I don’t like the way commentary tends to narrow us, as parents, down to a certain group.
“I would argue different people make different sacrifices to send their children to these schools. I know one guy who hasn’t made any pension contributions, and instead he pays for his children’s fees. These are sacrifices we all make.”
Rory Graham, head chef at Midleton College, is from a Catholic background, and he has sent his daughter to the school this year. “Our daughter wanted to come here, and with any school, there is always going to be expenses. At primary school, you have costs for books and other voluntary contributions. We planned to send our daughter here. Both of us as parents are in employment, so we’ll make it work.”
Of the 376 students in the school, 25-35 per cent are in receipt of some form of grant assistance or bursary to enable their parents to pay the fees, with priority given to Protestant families.
Representatives of Ireland’s fee-paying schools claim that the State would have to pay out an additional €133 million a year if all the 55 fee-paying schools move into the free education scheme. The State disputes this figure, and puts it at €22.55 million.
Were Government to continue to pull back on funding and cease supporting the school altogether, Thompson envisages a situation where fees could double. In his view, there doesn’t seem to be any joined-up thinking as to what this could mean for the State in terms of funding Protestant second-level fee-paying schools.
“If this comes from a policy of bringing equity to the second-level sector, then the outcome would be to create a more narrowly based elite of small fee-charging schools,” Thompson says. “The irony is: that is precisely the thing we are accused of being now.”
Background: Protestant fee-charging schools
Since the 1960s, when then minister for education Donogh O'Malley brought in free secondary education, Protestant fee-charging schools were recognised differently from other fee-charging secondary schools. One of the reasons for this was that the Protestant community was spread over the country, meaning students often had to travel and board to receive a second-level education.
What was devised to cater for this need was the “block grant scheme”, a way of treating the Protestant schools as “free” schools within the free education scheme. This meant that Protestants who went to board at schools of their own ethos could be supported with a grant from the State to do so.
The grant would cover all or a portion of the fees, depending on the outcome of a means test. Teachers in the Protestant fee-charging schools were provided by the state, and the schools were eligible for capital grants much like other schools.
Changes were made in 2008, when it was decided by Government that Protestant schools would be treated in the same way as all other fee-paying schools. As a result, the pupil teacher ratio increased dramatically, and Protestant fee-charging schools were also no longer eligible for school services grants.
Some Protestant fee-charging schools argue it will be difficult for them to survive financially outside the public education system. In particular, smaller schools serving bigger rural areas may struggle.
Already, some former fee-charging Protestant schools have joined the public education system, such as Kilkenny College and Wilson’s Hospital School, but unless a school has a critical mass of boarder students, it may not make financial sense to do so.