Sense of prestige and better exam results driving fee-paying boom


ANALYSIS:Parents continue to see private education as a sound investment in their children’s future

PRIVATE EDUCATION in Ireland – which thrived under the radar for generations – has moved into the mainstream in the past decade.

As the economy boomed, fee-paying schools began to attract those who had no family history with the likes of Blackrock, Clongowes and Belvedere.

Suddenly, a rising middle class found they could also afford the fees to enrol their son or daughter in some of the most prestigious schools in the State.

Enrolment patterns over the past decade confirm this social trend. The most expensive school in the State – St Gerard’s in Bray, Co Wicklow – registered a 28 per cent increase in pupil numbers. The likes of Belvedere, CUS and St Andrew’s also experienced a surge in numbers.

Conversely, enrolment fell away at traditional Christian Brother schools like St Joseph’s in Fairview, St Paul’s in Raheny and O’Connell’s school. These schools may have been the alma maters of former taoisigh, GAA stars and a veritable army of senior civil servants. But, as the economy boomed, some of their past pupils with teenage children were looking elsewhere to place their children.

In some respects, this boom in private education did not make much sense since all teachers are trained in the same system. So what drove the increase in pupil numbers and the strong demand for private education?

Some will say it is all driven by a kind of snobbery. These schools enjoy a certain cache and prestige in Irish society. What sensible parent would not want to buy into this prestige if they could afford the fees, still relatively modest by British and American standards?

That, at least, was a point one was likely to hear raised at dinner parties in south Dublin.

The other factor driving enrolment was the sense among parents that these schools deliver better exam results. These parents will tell you how discipline in these schools is tighter than in the State sector, how teacher underperformance is addressed more rigorously and, critically, how the academic expectation level among the mass of pupils is higher. Taken together these factors deliver better academic results, they maintain. All of these claims will, of course, be contested by the many excellent schools and teachers in the State sector. But that will not change the perception among parents in the fee-paying sector that their children enjoy certain key advantages. And that is why they will continue to dole out fees for private education – even in the teeth of the current recession.

But is there any statistical evidence to back up the claim that fee-paying schools outperform the State sector in exams?

The 2010 Irish TimesFeeder School List – tracking progression to all third-level courses – shows that “free” State schools will match or even eclipse the progression rate of some fee-paying schools if they are located in affluent areas.

That said, the pattern changed when the list focused only on entry to high-points courses. This list was dominated by fee-paying schools.

In all, private fee-paying schools have received more than €530 million in support from the taxpayer in the past five years. This is over and above the €470 million spent on teachers’ salaries.

With teacher salaries paid by the State, many fee-paying schools enjoy much better facilities than their counterparts in the free second-level sector.