O'Keeffe stays firm on school grants

 

Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has said it is “not possible” to reverse the Government decision to withdraw grant funding for fee-paying Protestant schools.

Mr O’Keeffe was responding to criticism by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Cork, Paul Colton, who said Protestant schools had been “singled out uniquely” for cuts in funding and for increases in the pupil-teacher ratio.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One, Dr Colton said he agreed with remarks by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny that the Protestant schools were being “got at”.

Protestant secondary schools - apart from the State’s five Protestant comprehensives - were removed last year from the free education scheme after more than 40 years.

Dr Colton said the Minister was hiding behind advice he said had been obtained from the Attorney General on the matter, but that he refused to allow the Bishops see this advice.

“Are we seriously to believe that the founding fathers and framers of our Constitution envisaged a situation where this Republic would become a hostile place for the children of the Protestant minority?” the Bishop asked.

He said the Bishops had taken the unprecedented step in March of writing to the Minister asking that he reinstate the funding that had been withdrawn. They had circulated the letter to all members of the Oireachtas.

Mr O’Keeffe had responded that the Attorney General had said the funding for Protestant schools was “unconstitutional”.

This was, the Bishop said, the first time “this constitutional card has been played”.

“No previous ministers seem to have heard of this advice,” Dr Colton said.

He said he believed the Minister “knows that he has made a mistake” and that he would like to change his mind on the issue. However, the Government did not want to “be seen doing U-turns”.

The Bishop said Protestant schools were “singled out uniquely” in the last budget when their classification was changed. The status of no other school would be changed without consultation.

He said that in Cork city, parents of the Protestant community had the option of sending children to free schools. Outside the city, however, this was not an option.

“If you don’t live in Cork city you have no choice but to pay for education if you want a school of your own ethos.

“It means that if you ar e protestants in certain parts of the country, it means you have to pay for something that most other people do not have to pay for.”

Dr Colton said Protestants had, traditionally, kept their heads down. “They are not keeping their heads down on this one.”

He said the answer was in the Minister’s hands and that it was he who needed to solve the problem, not the Bishops.

Responding, Mr O’Keeffe said he did not want to discuss the matter “on the airwaves”. He said he had asked the Bishops for constructive proposals to address the issues and that they had written back seeking restoration of the grant. This was not possible, he said.

He said grants had been taken from “all schools” last year due to the budgetary position.

"There was nothing particular about taking the grants away from the Protestant schools as such. We increased the pupil teacher ratio for fee-paying schools. Protestant schools were affected by that. Catholic fee-paying schools were affected as well.”

Mr O’Keeffe said it had been made “quite clear the pupil teacher ratio would not be restored because of the difficult financial position”. The Government also advised the Bishops that the ancillary grant was “unconstitutional in the way it was being administered…and in that situation we couldn’t see our way forward”.

When it had been made clear that “some schools were experiencing difficulties, particularly rural Protestant schools”, the Government had sought proposals to deal with this.

He had asked the Bishops to deal with officials at the Department of Education to find a way forward. A very positive and “cordial” meeting had taken place last Wednesday, Mr O’Keeffe said.

Asked if the Government might reverse its decision, Mr O’Keeffe said: “In terms of the grants, that’s not possible. In terms of the pupil-teacher ratio, they made some salient points. I’m prepared in ongoing discussions to look at all of the parameters and hopefully we can come to a satisfactory resolution.”