The private primary: can it survive?


With news that St Anne’s primary school in Dún Laoghaire is set to close, making it the latest victim of the recession, we examine the viability of this niche in the private education sector

They are Ireland’s 34 private primary schools, 7,610 children attend them, and they’re out on their own. The Republic of Ireland’s constitution guarantees that parents have the right to educate their children in whatever manner they see fit. But not unless they’re willing to pay for it: private primary schools which deviate from the national curriculum, using models such as Steiner, Montessori, or the British preparatory school system, do not get any financial or administrative support from the taxpayer. Mainstream private primary schools must also fend for themselves. All 34 save the State money every year.

The Department of Education and Science takes no day-to-day interest in the running of the schools, except to insist that parents of children in unrecognised schools register their children with the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB), which monitors school attendance. Not all schools, however, have registered with the NEWB. According to department guidelines, recognised primary schools can be assessed “only to ensure that children are receiving a certain minimum education”.

By contrast, the State’s 56 private post-primary schools receive €89 million State support annually towards teacher salaries. Since 2007, the State has also given the schools €14.7 million towards capital spending. They are subject to inspection and the same rules and regulations that govern public schools.

The private primary sector is marked by diverse teaching methods and small class sizes. In the national school system, average class size is 24.3 pupils, although many schools have up to 30 pupils per classroom. Some private primaries have as little as six pupils per classroom, others have around 15. Class size rarely exceeds 20.

Just under half of the primary schools are associated with big- brand, private secondary schools, and stick broadly to the State curriculum. In Dublin they include Willow Park, which feeds into Blackrock College; St Andrew’s College Junior School, St Mary’s College Junior School; Teresian’s Junior School, St Kilian’s German School; Mount Anville Montessori Junior School; Loreto College Junior School (St Stephen’s Green); Alexandra College Junior School, and the Catholic University School – all of which feed into the senior schools. Dundalk Grammar School in Louth and St Gerard’s in Wicklow, also feed into the senior schools.

Fees vary, but can be higher than secondary level, where the State pays the bill for teacher salaries. St Andrew’s Junior College charges €7,880 per year. The Catholic University School charges €4,800.

Just over half of the private primary schools run alternative school models. Castle Park School in Dalkey (south Dublin); Headford in Kells (Co Meath), and Aravon School in Bray (Co Wicklow), operate on a British “preparatory school” model. Often taking boarders, prep schools tend to have high fees and longer school days with an emphasis on extra-curricular and sporting activities.

The International School of Dublin, based in Dublin 4, has a high enrolment of diplomats’ children, and charges fees of €8,200 a year, payable in two instalments.

The Montessori model of education, which emphasises freedom within limits, mixed age classes, and sensory learning, is particularly popular.

Balreask House in Navan, Co Meath, follows the State curriculum using Montessori methods. The co-educational school, founded in 1967 as a private family business, has just 27 students and four full-time teachers, and charges €2,250 a year for junior infants to first class, and €2,400 a year from second to sixth class.

Balreask has seen numbers drop within the past two years as parents find themselves unable to afford the fees. But other schools, including Headford, a private prep school in Co Meath with fees of €9,000 per year for day students and €15,000 for boarders, continues to attract children from around the world. Many Headford graduates go on to study at elite UK secondary schools such as Eton, Harrow, and Cheltenham Ladies College.

The State does not offer any financial support to children with special needs in private primary schools. However, most schools will accept children with special needs on a case-by-case basis.

‘I do feel we have to explain our decision to send the kids there’

Erica O’Connell:

“I went to St Anne’s. I always wanted my kids to go there. I didn’t even look at other schools. My three girls are 13, 11, and 9.

“Two of them, Emma and Sophie are still here. There was never any question but that Sophie (who has Down syndrome, pictured left with her mother), would come here, and the school has been tremendously supportive. Because Sophie is in a private school, she can’t avail of the State supports which would be available to other children with Down syndrome. I feel we have to explain our decision to send the kids here, and we find ourselves explaining that the State doesn’t provide support to private primary schools.”

‘I’m so glad I’ve been a part of this school and its story’

Grainne Grimley

“I’m a mother of five, two girls and three boys. They’ve all come through St Anne’s at some stage; my youngest, Theo, is in kindergarten, and my eldest – now in Holy Child – was here since she was two. St Anne’s was able to give individual attention to the kids, which just wouldn’t be possible in a larger class. The kids were really happy there.

We have projected ahead for the children’s education, and we factor that into our finances. It’s not a given that they’ll go there, but it has worked well for us. I’m so glad I’ve been a part of this school and its story.”

Profile of St Anne's

Two months ago, St Anne’s in Dún Laoghaire, (Maeve Binchy’s former school) celebrated its 100th anniversary. Then, just two weeks ago, parents were called to a special meeting and told that the school would close at the end of the year, another victim of the recession.

It was a devastating blow for the school’s six teachers and 45 students, as well as the school’s owners, Seán and Maria Buckley. But, despite the school’s history and success, it just wasn’t attracting enough numbers.

St Anne’s had 45 students and six teachers, including a kindergarten and junior infants class. It stuck to the national school curriculum but often used Montessori teaching methods. Most of the current pupils have secured places in local public schools.

Fees began at €3,350 in kindergarten and junior infants and rose to €4,500 by fifth and sixth class. The main feeder school for St Anne’s was Holy Child, a private school in Killiney, south county Dublin.

St Anne’s will close its doors for the final time on May 30th with a Mass. It’s possible that more private primaries could follow suit within the next year.

GETTING TO KNOW KUMON - the teaching method pioneered in Japan

PARENTS LOOKING for private primary education have options other than the school system.

Every day over four million children across the world take part in the Kumon supplementary education programme.

It’s a worksheet-based learning system aimed at improving numeracy and literacy skills. There’s no let-up: children, aged between 3 and 18, are requested to fill their worksheets every day, including Christmas day.

It seems like a heavy workload for a child, on top of homework and other commitments. “Kumon works on the basis of a little work, done often,” says David Browne, who runs a Kumon branch in Stillorgan, south county Dublin.

“Children on the Kumon programme spend about 15 minutes a day working on Kumon work. To some extent, it becomes part of their life, like brushing their teeth or washing their face. That said, the programme is individualised and tailored to the needs of each child, and if a child is sick or away for a few days they can of course take a step back.”

Children on Kumon work alone, and the programme stresses independent learning. Children are encouraged to complete the worksheets within a set time period; the difficulty level progresses with age.

Kumon says that it challenges gifted children and helps children with numeracy and literacy difficulties to catch up.

However, it relies heavily on parental involvement and support. If the parents don’t encourage the children to complete the daily Kumon work, the programme falls apart.

A significant portion of children on the programme are from non-Irish backgrounds, with Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, and Nigerian families keen to use the programme to help their children get ahead.

Kumon, which began in Japan in 1954, is a well-known name across Asia and the US, and is increasingly a part of the UK’s education landscape. It now has 13 branches in Ireland, including Sligo, Donegal, Cork, Limerick, Wicklow, and Dublin, and has plans for dramatic expansion nationwide.

Browne’s wife, Sunita Sukumaran, is a GP. She runs the centre in Bray. She was first drawn to Kumon, she says, when they wanted a challenge for their daughter, who was excelling in school. It wasn’t long before she was running a centre. Browne soon entered the business.

Inevitably, there’s a danger that parents will be either over-enthusiastic about their child’s progress, and will push too hard and overburden the child at a time when they should be developing through play. But Sukumaran and Browne are both keen to stress that they develop programmes for the child which suit that child’s level.

“We sometimes tell parents that they need to pull back, and we monitor it closely to ensure there isn’t too much pressure on the child,” says Sunita. “It’s really helped our children. We feel the small time outlay has been worth it.”

Eaven McCarthy is a parent of four children. All attend public schools in south Dublin.

Two of her children are on Kumon. “My sister’s children really achieved results through Kumon,” she says. “I gave it a shot for a while, and it’s made a huge difference to their learning. It can be a bit of a pain doing it everyday, but it’s become part of homework now, and the kids accept and even enjoy it.”

Kumon charges a flat monthly fee for each subject, which varies from centre to centre: Stillorgan charges €65 per month, Bray, €75 per month, and Malahide and Mallow both charge €70 per month.

Each centre also has a €30 registration charge.