On the face of it, these are good times for Ireland’s private schools: enrolments have climbed to a record high, fees are creeping upwards and they have emerged from Covid unscathed.
Unlike the years following the economic crash, the incomes of the middle classes have remained largely intact and, if anything, the numbers who aspire to privately educate their children is rising.
However, there is a growing sense of anxiety and alarm among many private school leaders.
In addition to complaints that they receive less money per pupil from the State than “free” schools and are denied access to an array of grant aid, they see an existential threat in the form of a Sinn Féin-led government.
We know this is a very hard argument to win in the court of public opinion. The most important thing is that we all speak with one voice on this
The party’s policy is to end State subsidies for the State’s 51 fee-charging schools, which amounted to €111 million last year. This pays for most teachers’ salaries and special needs assistants, as well as limited grant aid.
The Irish School Heads’ Association – which represents about 21 Protestant fee-charging secondary schools – has been meeting regularly over recent weeks to plan a rear-guard action.
Some schools have commissioned internal studies and estimate they would have to double their fees to survive; others are exploring legal options to see whether a move to end State support would be unconstitutional; one school has commissioned a public relations firm to marshal the best arguments to counter any change in policy.
“We know this is a very hard argument to win in the court of public opinion,” says one principal, who declined to be named. “The most important thing is that we all speak with one voice on this.”
The reality is that, despite the public perception of the fee-charging sector, private schools are not all the same.
They range from heavily oversubscribed schools in the greater Dublin area – sitting on spacious campuses with enviable facilities – to smaller, Protestant schools in more rural areas with ageing buildings.
Some dominate feeder schools lists and send very high proportions of their students to high-points courses and pride themselves on their sporting traditions and old school tie networks; others see themselves as meeting the needs of minority faiths outside the capital, where other education options are limited.
“We’re not all based in south Dublin,” says one principal of a fee-charging school outside the capital.
“We’re a rural school and there’s little understanding of how we’re meeting the needs of Protestant families. Many of these students avail of the SEC [Secondary Education Committee] grants.”
This is a reference to the Protestant Block Grant, funded by the Department of Education since 1968, which provides means-tested financial assistance to help Church of Ireland families attend Protestant secondary schools as day pupils or boarders.
Schools are acutely aware, however, that requests for funding will not play well in public.
The day pupil fees many schools charge are considerable: St Columba's in Dublin is the most expensive day school in the country (€9,174), followed by Sutton Park, Dublin 13 (€7,995); Cistercian College in Roscrea, Co Tipperary (€7,850); Alexandra College, Dublin 6 (€7,685), St Gerard's, Bray, Co Wicklow (€7,590) and the King's Hospital, Co Dublin (€7,550).
Among boarding schools, St Columba's is also the most expensive for seven-day boarding (up to €24,670); followed by Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare (€20,800); Rathdown School, Glenageary (€20,600); and Blackrock College (€19,900).
Given these fees, many are likely to ask why are schools unhappy with their levels of funding.
Principals argue that their schools receive significantly lower levels of funding compared with free schools which they need to make up for in fees.
While teachers are provided by the State at a pupil-teacher ratio of 19:1 in the free sector, it rises to 23:1 in the fee-charging sector. They also receive reduced guidance and counselling allocations and are ineligible for a range of capital grants.
The basis for the difference in treatment, according to the Department of Education, is that private schools have access to financial reserves which other schools do not. However, principals of fee-charging schools say this is not necessarily the case.
Any money in the bank is being saved for badly needed capital investment, because we're not entitled to those grants
“The idea is that we’re all rich and wealthy with huge cash reserves because most of us are located in Ross O’Carroll-Kelly land,” says one private school principal, who declined to be named.
“The reality is that we’re struggling to hire additional teachers who we have to employ privately. Everything costs us more, because we don’t get the State support that schools in the free scheme do. Any money in the bank is being saved for badly needed capital investment, because we’re not entitled to those grants.”
There is frustration among private schools – and boarding schools in particular – at the Department of Education’s decision to initially refuse the fee-charging sector automatic access to its €365 million Covid-19 school reopening funds.
The plan was to limit these funds to State-funded schools only. However, the rules were subsequently eased to allow private schools access funds where they could “demonstrate difficulties in implementing necessary control measures outlined in the plan”.
While successive governments have presided over an effective lowering in grant support for the private sector, they are most fearful of what may lie ahead.
Opinion polls indicate that Sinn Féin is now the largest political party and Mary Lou McDonald – who attended a fee-paying school herself – is in pole position to be the next taoiseach.
The party’s policies involve ending State subsidies for the State’s 50 fee-charging schools.
Other political parties such as Labour, the Social Democrats and smaller left-wing parties are also sympathetic to such a move.
So, what would happen if the policies came to pass?
Private schools acknowledge that they have two broad options: dramatically increase their fees or enter the “free scheme”.
A doubling of fees, say principals, would likely result in a smaller and more elite private sector which is closer to the UK’s model of education.
“A school like ours in the UK is about £25,000 [€30,000] for day pupils and £45,000-£50,000 [€55,000-€60,000]. They’re more expensive because they get no government funding.
"Not many parents in Ireland could afford that kind of money. At least, the way things are, most families on moderate incomes can think about a fee-charging school," says one principal.
Another adds: “We’ve run the numbers on it and the reality is that we’d be smaller and probably cater to an elite of international students, mostly. That’s not what we’re about, at the end of the day.”
Few private school principals say the option of entering the free scheme is appealing. They say they would lose many of their privately employed teachers and support staff who provide a broader array of subjects or extra-curricular activities that might not be possible otherwise.
“We’d have to let a lot of our teachers go; they are the ones providing extra-curricular options or subjects that make us the school that we are,” says one.
However, some question whether this would really be the case. Several fee-charging schools moved into the “free” sector in the years following the recession, when numbers dipped, and are now thriving.
Kilkenny College – whose past pupils include Jonathan Swift and the philosopher George Berkeley – joined the free scheme in 2013 and cited falling family incomes and rising taxes as a reason why numbers were falling.
At the time it had just under 800 pupils; today it has more than 900. Day pupils can now attend the school free, while this has also reduced the cost of boarding.
In fact, at a time when boarding numbers are falling in most schools, it saw a 16 per cent increase in numbers in 2013-2019. It now has boarding waiting lists across all year groups. The school, which has a Church of Ireland ethos, has said that parents see the value of a co-educational boarding and day setting, within an Anglican ethos that is available across the area.
Sinn Féin says these kinds of examples back up its policy stance and has pledged to work closely with minority faith schools to safeguard their future.
If this is about 'levelling up' and equity and fairness, this won't solve it. Will they also shut down private grinds?
“There are already minority faith schools that are not fee-paying, and that are themselves perfectly sustainable; there’s no reason to believe that the future of all minority faith schools could not be safeguarded within the public-funded system, and we would work with them to see that to fruition,” a spokesman said.
Fee-charging schools, however, say the reality is more complex and the effect of cutting State support would simply reduce parents’ choice. Some question the real purpose behind Sinn Féin’s policy.
“If this is about ‘levelling up’ and equity and fairness, this won’t solve it. Will they also shut down private grinds? Will they prevent families sending their child on foreign exchange?” asks one principal.
“The reality is this policy would actually cost the State millions of euro. We’ll end up like it is in the UK where we have privately funded elite schools, while best free schools will be in the most affluent areas... the equity arguments don’t stack up. This is a politically driven policy. It’s all about appearance.”
This is not the first time that fee-charging schools have had a battle on their hands.
During the recession private schools commissioned the consultancy firm PwC to draw up a report on the funding issue.
It claimed the cost to the taxpayer of educating students in free schools was almost twice that of fee-paying schools. In other words, private schools were saving the taxpayer about €3,500 per student. However, a Department of Education report put this figure at close to €1,000 per pupil.
Some principals, for their part, think their strongest approach to countering any cuts in funding will be a legal challenge.
The State has a duty under article 42 of the Constitution to respect parental choice in education and to provide “for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children”.
It adds that the State “shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State”.
“As I see it, the State has an obligation to fund minority faith schools; we provide for a section of society... That choice is protected in the Constitution... At the end of the day, we’re small villages. We employ teachers, support staff, ground staff. We’re meeting the needs of the community. Why anyone would want to threaten that, I don’t know.”