State aid to stay for fee-paying schools

 

MINISTER FOR Education and Science Batt O’Keeffe is set to maintain State support for feepaying schools, despite the growing economic crisis.

But new rules may force the sector to operate open admission policies, amid concerns that some are cherrypicking the best students and refusing to enrol those with learning needs or foreign nationals.

Mr O’Keeffe targeted support for fee-paying schools in the Budget. From this year these schools will gain one teacher for every 20 pupils, compared with one teacher for every 18 pupils last year.

Education sources stress that the Minister has no intention of abolishing State support. In his view this would make little sense as students would be forced back into the State sector at an additional cost to the taxpayer.

But he is known to be concerned about admission policies in some fee-paying schools. Last year, his predecessor Mary Hanafin accused some schools of using subtle practices like waiting lists and sibling policies to exclude some students.

Mr O’Keeffe is reviewing school enrolment policies after a departmental audit last year highlighted cherrypicking by some schools. The audit did not review the admission policies of fee-paying schools.

The Minister is under pressure from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) to make State support contingent on revised admission policies which are open and fair.

The new figures on total salary costs in the fee-paying sector were provided in response to a Dáil question by Labour spokesman on education Ruairí­ Quinn.

Last night he said: “We need genuine equality of opportunity in these schools and I think the taxpayer would expect it. We should expect them to put in place enrolment policies which ensure that students with learning problems and disabilities have a fair chance of attending their nearest private school. I would also expect them to offer more scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

There are 56 fee-charging second-level schools in the State of which 21 are Protestant, two inter-denominational, one Jewish and the rest Catholic.

In all, the State pays the salaries of close to 1,500 teachers in such schools.

The TUI wants funding withdrawn from schools who exclude any category of pupils, including those with learning needs, foreign nationals and Travellers. It also wants a ban on waiting lists for schools and on entrance tests.

The most recent departmental data shows that provision for students with learning needs is largely concentrated in public schools and in poor areas of Dublin.

The Irish Times2006 survey showed a relatively low level of special needs provision in most feepaying schools.

Since then, many fee-paying schools, like Belvedere College and Alexandra College in Dublin, have been praised for their efforts to accommodate special-needs students.