Not all fee-paying schools are created equal

 

The audit ordered by the Minister for Education is likely to herald changes in funding but he must first find out which schools are well-heeled and which are struggling, writes SEAN FLYNN,Education Editor

YOU COULD hardly blame some in the fee-paying sector for feeling somewhat under siege these days. The sector has had to absorb a great deal of negative publicity in recent years.

The schools have been targeted by the current Government and the previous administration for pupil-teacher ratio cuts. Budget 2012 increased the pupil-teacher ratio in the fee-paying schools from 20:1 to 21:1; this cut was not imposed on most schools in the State system.

The decision to target fee-paying schools reflects anger – especially among the Labour grassroots and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, whose members mostly teach in the vocational and comprehensive/community schools.

They see private schools as elitist and resent how the State supports them with up to €100 million annually, most of it used to pay teacher salaries.

Earlier this year, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn rejected the union’s call for for the abolition of State support for fee-paying schools. Union president Bernie Ruane said these schools had been repeatedly shown to be bottom of the table when it came to inclusivity, especially with regard to embracing students with special needs.

She challenged Quinn to address what she described as “educational apartheid”.

Parents, she said, had to collect supermarket tokens to buy computers for public schools while the State-funded “privileged schools can afford to build swimming pools and golf courses”.

Ireland is one of the few countries where the State pays the salaries of teachers in private schools. The schools in question can then use the fee income to boost their range of services and facilities.

There have also been complaints that some private schools have used fee income to employ rugby coaches and the like at huge expense.

Catholic groups are also increasing pressure on fee-paying schools to be more inclusive.

In a position paper on school patronage, the Catholic Schools Partnership, an umbrella group providing support for all partners in the Republic’s Catholic schools, said: “Catholic fee-paying schools must make serious efforts to reach out to socially deprived communities, to pupils with special needs and to foster an ever deeper sense of social awareness . . . Otherwise, they risk becoming a sign that is contradictory in terms of Christ’s mission.”

Many private schools resent the manner in which they have been targeted. They say that their schools have been built up at little cost to the State courtesy of donations.

They also underline how the sector receives none of the capitation or other supports given to “free” State schools.

In particular, Protestant schools in rural areas resent the notion that all fee-paying schools enjoy huge reservoirs of disposable income. In fact, many Protestant schools are struggling to survive.

Quinn’s new investigation is designed to identify which schools are most in need and which no longer deserve the same level of State support.

Education sources say it is difficult to justify State support for well-heeled schools. The audit, he said, is designed to help schools within the fee-paying sector who really need help.

The new inquiry is certain to see changes in State funding for fee-paying schools. But first Quinn and his officials must gather the evidence.