Paying for privilege, whether we benefit or not

Elite education existed in Ireland long before State schools, but even today we all subsidise privilege, and parents pay for polish that has nothing to do with education

One of the most divisive educational issues in modern societies is the link between private education and social class. In Ireland, medium- to low-income families help to subsidise an education they cannot hope to bestow upon their own children. How did we end up with this odd, premium-for-privilege system?

UK boarding schools can charge more than €35,000 per year at the most prestigious end. Swiss boarding schools charge as much as €90,000 in tuition fees and specialise in educating the children of the global super-rich. Here we have no such obvious polarities, but this is partly because the State underwrites salaries at elite and fee-paying schools to the tune of €100 million per year – an anomaly in global terms.

Elite education is as a consequence more affordable here than elsewhere, meaning a greater spread of the middle class have access to prestigious schools if they so wish. The sector educates just 7 per cent of the population, which is also exactly the same proportion of society as are educated at independent fee-paying schools in the UK and Canada.

In researching my book about education, privilege and social mobility in 19th-century Ireland, I found many of the same dilemmas facing parents then as we see now. The problem of where to school a child is not always based on criteria such as curriculum, teaching quality or the door-to-door commute. Instead, a concerned parent might dwell on less obvious aspects, from university progression rates to gender balance, and from school ethos (whatever that is) to reputation.


At the heart of most of this is the knowledge that the school you choose for your child will help to shape them in ways other than the purely academic and that it will affect how they are judged in wider society.

Early portrait

In a famous scene in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, Stephen's father, Mr Dedalus, erupts when it occurs to him his son might have to attend a Christian Brothers school as the family could no longer afford Clongowes. "Christian brothers be damned! said Mr. Dedalus. Is it with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud? No, let him stick to the Jesuits in God's name since he began with them. They'll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows who can get you a position."

It is no wonder that Mr Dedalus thought the school was effective in the jobs market. When A Portrait was published, the leader of nationalist Ireland, John Redmond, was an "old boy" of Clongowes, and, over the previous 30 years school graduates had included the lord chancellor, lord chief justice and lord chief baron of Ireland; president of the Royal College of Physicians and governor of the Bank of Ireland. Here was a school with the right sort of alumni.

Elite education in Ireland developed in the 19th century and clustered, as today, in suburban Dublin. Most of the schools we now consider “elite” were founded when the Government felt no obligation to pay for the luxury of secondary education. All secondary education was fee-paying.

Co-education was unthinkable, and less than 3 per cent of the population were educated to age 17. The richest families were either educating their children at home, using foreign tutors or governesses, or sending them to England (boys) or the Continent (girls). This transnational education offered even more exclusivity and for girls would guarantee fluency in French or German: highly prized in the marriage market. In contrast, schools at home developed slowly and were middle- to upper-middle-class establishments for most of the century. Their students usually came from the affluent suburbs of south Co Dublin, from the professional classes, or from gentry families in rural Ireland.

Radical scholar

The Irish schools we now name-check as elite were mostly middle-class establishments founded in the early to mid-19th century. Clongowes Wood, for Catholics, was founded in 1814 by English and Sicilian-trained Jesuits. Radical English scholar William Sewell founded Ireland’s leading school for Protestant boys, St Columba’s College, in 1843.

Blackrock College is a French foundation, as are almost all the most prestigious convent schools in Ireland, such as Sacred Heart (Mount Anville) and Faithful Companions of Jesus (Laurel Hill, Limerick).

So great was the French influence on female education that out of 62 convents founded here in the 19th century, just six were by Irish orders. For Continental orders, Ireland promised lots of English-speaking recruits: good raw Catholic material for their foreign missions.

The Irish schools for boys were more anglicised, modelled on the successful global brand of English public schools such as Eton. This imitation appealed to their target market: Irish parents. This accounts for the distinctive sporting traditions at schools such as Clongowes and Blackrock, most often associated with rugby now, but cricket was pre-eminent from the 1860s to 1910s. The schools controlled the sports the boys could play, sometimes neurotically. Soccer was the most popular sport among the Clongowes boys for much of the 1880s and 1890s, but the social status of the game fell as the urban working classes adopted it in the 1890s, and the school banned it. When the boys returned in 1895, the soccer field had been repurposed. The authorities had literally moved the goalposts.

Irish elite education today, for all religious groups, developed out of necessity and was shaped by the needs of church and society. When power was divided between two governments north and south in 1922, there was no clamour to dismantle fee- paying education.

Neither state had resources enough for a costly equality-driven state system, nor was there a popular movement for secular education. In contrast to almost everywhere else in Europe, Irish education was more religiously controlled in 1922 than it had been in 1870, and a two-tier system remained in place. Free education for all in the late 1960s conversely led to a surge in the number of people entering private education in the Republic, and the social position of fee-paying institutions has remained reasonably stable since.

Paying a premium

Why are Irish parents so willing to pay a premium for roughly the same education as their neighbours receive in lower-status free schools? In my research I came across a wonderful quote in Practical Education (1798) by Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth that gets to the heart of the matter.

They saw that in the late 18th century the nouveaux riche, who had gained their money from trade, wanted their children to gain the polish and poise absent from their more humble origins and thus sent their sons to high-cost English boarding schools.

“Public schools efface this rusticity,” they wrote, “and correct the faults of provincial dialect: in this point of view they are highly advantageous.”

The same emphasis on the intangible "polish" at an elite school also shines through in a 1983 letter to a problem page in The Irish Times, from a concerned mother seeking advice on choosing a school for her second son. The family lived in well-off Killiney in south Co Dublin, and had a wide array of schools to choose from. "I sent my first son to the Christian Brothers, and he has got pretty good results all round, but he has a frightful Dublin accent. Also they play no games at the school, there is no music, no debating, no 'extras' at all . . . Now I have to decide where to send my next son. I would prefer to send him somewhere with a bit more polish and more extras. Among those suggested have been Blackrock, Gonzaga. I have heard that the Jesuits are the tops in education. Is this true?"

But this sort of first-world problem also brings with it different anxieties: questions of class loyalty. Take a post on the popular website in 2007. The writer is a UK-born mother from a working-class background who has married into the affluent south Dublin family of her "Dear Husband (DH)". The issue is where to send their "Dear Son (DS)" to school:

“My DH and all his family have gone to private/fee-paying schools in Dublin. I don’t think there is even a stray cousin who didn’t. We have a DS and my DH’s family are asking us if we have his name down anywhere. I want what’s best for my son, of course, but I’m struggling at so many levels with the idea of sending him to private school. The cost is a major factor, it would be a huge struggle, but my main other concerns are:

1 He'll only [be] mixing with kids whose parents have money. I hate this exclusivity.

2 He won't really understand from experience the diversity of life. He'll feel in some way superior to others?

3 He won't be streetwise, he'll be green behind the ears (I get this idea from DH's nephews, who are just so naive compared to me at their age).

4 He'll be a snob who talks about Ross O'Carroll as if he's a real person to be looked up to (my DH's nephews do this, they quote him all the time and I'm like, he's taking the p*ss out of youuuuuuuuu FFS)!

5 He'll be lazy, will hang around Dundrum shopping centre and want clothes we can ill afford. He'll do nothing around the house as none of his friends do.

I don’t mean to offend anyone with kids in private schools. I’m being a bit silly with some of my concerns, but it’s Sunday night and I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine. So anyone out there with boys in schools in south Dublin, would you recommend them and why – private or not. And if you could send your kid to a private school, would you?”

The post was written at the height of the boom. One wonders whether the DS ever made it through a full cycle of fee-paying education, and whether he ever did any work around the house.

Elite education pre-dates State education here, and Irish parents have been paying a premium to advantage their children for a very long time. It is not like this in every country. Elsewhere, the beneficiaries usually pay full price for privilege. In Finland, considered by many educationalists to have the fairest and most desirable education system in the world, there is no such thing as a fee-paying school.

Fee-paying education is also a rather suburban – and Dublin-centric – phenomenon. Outliers such as Glenstal Abbey (Murroe) aside, most of the fee- paying schools and attendant parental anxieties are suburban, as are their clientele. Irish parents who are worried about which school to put their children’s names down for can console themselves that it is a historical problem.

Which school you choose, however, probably reveals more about you than it does about your 12-year-old.

Ciaran O'Neill is Ussher Lecturer in History at Trinity College Dublin. His book, Catholics of Consequence: Transnational Education, Social Mobility, and the Irish Catholic Elite 1850-1900 is published by Oxford University Press

This article has been ammended on 24.10.14