Protestants losing faith in system

 

Protestant children are entitled to be educated in Protestant schools. It's as simple as that. At least it was until the latest Budget cuts saw grants to the sector slashed. Without grant aid some Protestant children may now find themselves with no choices and few rights

THERE WAS little sympathy for fee-paying schools when it emerged that they had been hit harder than their free counterparts in the recent Budget. Leafy suburbia would hardly be rocked to its core. If pushed, the schools could simply raise the fees a little couldn't they?

Some fee-paying schools do not have that luxury. While a small number of Ireland's fee-paying Protestant schools fit the stereotype, with wonderful facilities and well-heeled students, most serve a very different community. For them, the Budget cuts are disastrous.

"After a few years of this, our school may not be able to function," Wynn Oliver is headmaster of Sligo Grammar School, Connacht's only boarding school and one of 21 Protestant schools that are dotted around the State. Catering for students from Donegal to Limerick, the school's population is hugely mixed in terms of both ability and background.

Monaghan Collegiate School draws students from its rural hinterland. Headmaster Michael Hall feels an enormous responsibility to cater for the families of the Protestant community, regardless of wealth or ability. "We basically direct our funding to assist families who want to send their children here. It is intended that they only have similar expenses as Catholic parents whose children attend a free secondary school," he explains.

The State always accepted that fee-paying Protestant schools were different from other fee-paying schools. Protestant students often do not have the choice of a free education. Therefore the State felt obliged to help schools keep running costs, and thus fees, as low as possible.

For the past 40 years or so, Protestant fee-paying schools were in receipt of a substantial grant normally reserved for non-feepaying schools. This support-services grant was worth €2.8 million between the 21 schools and was seen as an acknowledgment that the schools were viewed by the Government, as separate, serving a different purpose, from the rest of the fee-paying schools in the State.

The cost of day tuition at Sligo Grammar is about €2,400 per year. While this is reasonably low, approximately 80 per cent of the Protestant pupils are in receipt of either partial or total financial support to enable them to attend.

This financial support for Protestant students comes in the form of a means-tested Government block grant which can be topped up by grants and bursaries from voluntary bodies and the schools themselves.

Ian Coombes, headmaster of Bandon Grammar School in Co Cork says: "We run on very tight margins. Our understanding is that nobody must be excluded we must keep fees affordable as a result." About half of Bandon Grammar's Protestant students receive financial support and approximately 12 per cent pay no fees whatsoever.

As details of the Budget emerged, it became very evident that Protestant schools were no longer being acknowledged as a distinct group within the fee-paying sector. The €2.8 million reserved for the support services grant was withdrawn on the grounds that it was unfair to other fee-paying schools. As well as that, fee-paying schools, including the Protestant ones would all see their pupil-teacher ratio shoot up from 18:1 to 20:1.

"My initial reaction was that it was discriminatory," Oliver says.

Hall adds: "We were expected to suffer the same losses as free schools and then on top of that, we were being transferred into the private education scheme and told to absorb the cuts that came with that too."

Connections have been made between the severity of the cuts and fact that earlier this year four Protestant schools successfully challenged the teacher redeployment scheme in the High Court. The Protestant schools argued that they were not consulted on the matter and said they were working to protect their distinct ethos.

The feeling in the Department of Education was reported to be one of irritation at the outcome of the court case and there have been questions raised about whether the Budget could be seen as payback. People are reluctant to be drawn on the issue.

"I really hope that is not the case," says Coombes. "But I can see why people would make that connection."

Canon John McCullagh, secretary of the Secondary Education Committee and the General Synod Board of Education does not believe that there is any link. "I deal with Department of Education staff every week. They are hugely professional and I do not believe, and would not suggest that they would reduce themselves to something as petty as that," he argues.

Either way, the financial blow is significant. To compound the problem, funding was withdrawn immediately. Schools having budgeted for the service-support grant this year now find themselves in a fix. Bandon Grammar School is losing almost €91,000 this year, while Sligo Grammar is losing €97,000. Those figures do not include the other grant cuts that every school has to deal with.

It's not just a matter of money. The additional increase in pupil-teacher ratio to 20:1 has dismayed all concerned.

"We're looking at a loss of three teachers," says Coombes. "We don't know exactly how that will affect us yet, whether it will affect the range of subjects we can provide or what. That has yet to be decided."

Despite being hit by double cutbacks, the headmasters seem most concerned with the possible change in their status in the Government's eyes from free schools to fee-paying schools.

"Nothing has been said on that," says Coombes. "Our concern is that schools have been assured that these cuts are temporary and that they will regain grants lost when the economy improves. If we are seen to be part of the fee-paying sector, we are unlikely to regain anything."

The Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe, has remained vague on this subject.

"The current situation is not sustainable," says Oliver. "In order for us to maintain what we have now in the school, we will need to find €322,000. That would cover the service-support grant and the salaries of the three teachers we are set to lose."

Hiking fees is not an option.

"How can I pass on our shortfalls to parents?" demands Oliver. "Adding a few percentage on to fees is nothing for some schools. It simply is not feasible for a school like ours."

The situation is very serious however. Canon McCullagh says: "I have talked to several schools who have said that if these cuts persist over a number of years, they will not be viable. This isn't drama for the sake of it. If one of our schools were to close, where would those students go?"

At the moment talks are being held and hopes are high that some solution can be found. McCullagh will not be drawn for now. "A certain level of clarity was reached when we met the Minister," he says.

"We have always enthused about how much the Government has done for us," says Hall. "It has been hugely helpful and we are more than willing to shoulder our share of the burden while the country is in this state. I just want to know why we are being asked to shoulder more than everyone else."

MINORITY REPORT

BACKGROUND

Since the founding of the State, the right of minority groups to an education within their own particular ethos has been acknowledged.

WHY DO MOST PROTESTANT SCHOOLS CHARGE FEES?

When free second-level education was being planned in the 1960s, it became apparent that the State could not provide the level of funding required to support most of the Protestant schools. Because of the dispersed nature of the school population and the fact that most of the staff in the schools were lay teachers, the schools (often boarding schools) were more expensive to run. Therefore, it was agreed that the schools would continue to charge fees.

SO THEY WERE TREATED LIKE EVERY OTHER FEE-PAYING SCHOOL?

Not at all. The minister who introduced the free education scheme, Donogh OMalley, acknowledged that, unlike Catholics, Protestant students often did not have a choice about whether to attend a fee-paying or a free school. Often the fee-paying school was the only one available to them. He realised the importance of making sure the schools were accessible to everyone regardless of means. He therefore established the means-tested block grant to help needy students pay the fees required. The Protestant schools were also in receipt of the support services grant which were only available to free Catholic schools.

THE STATUS OF THE PROTESTANT FEE-PAYING SCHOOLS WAS CLOSER TO THAT OF THE FREE CATHOLIC SCHOOLS THEN?

Yes. But now with the Budget cuts it seems that those days are now over and Protestant schools are now being treated like other fee-paying schools.

SO WHAT HAPPENED IN THIS BUDGET?

Protestant schools were hit with the same cuts in grants and substitution as every other school in the State. However in addition to those cuts, the 21 schools also lost their support services grant, worth €2.8 million in total and had their pupil teacher ratio hiked from 18:1 to 20:1. Fee-paying schools were hit with the extra rise in class size. Free schools saw their pupil teacher ratio rise to 19:1.

SO THEY WERE PUT IN THE SAME BRACKET AS FEE-PAYING SCHOOLS?

Yes. The Budgetary breakdown for education described the extra money that Protestant schools were getting as an "anomalous situation" and Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe told the Dáil that there was a legal impediment in providing the grant to Protestants. He claimed that a case taken by a Catholic school in this regard would be difficult to defend. Others argued that since a case has not been taken in 40 years, that legal argument rang hollow.

HAS THEIR STATUS CHANGED SO?

We're not sure. If it has, many Protestant schools are worried that the cuts made in this Budget could be permanent. Promises have been made about many of the cuts being temporary, but the status of the cuts for fee-paying schools is unknown. Many within the Protestant school sector fear that being treated as fee-paying schools could be disastrous.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

For the moment, Protestant schools appear to be battening down the hatches and slashing spending. The priority is to ensure that any student who wishes to attend one of these schools will be able to do so regardless of their financial circumstances. However long they will be able to sustain this remains unknown.