The Irish Times view on fee-paying schools and Covid-19: Safety supports should be available to all

It is worrying that in the education sector the State should start to treat schools differently on the important issue of protecting the health of staff and students

 

When the Government announced details of its €375 million fund to help schools reopen safely last month, it said its priority was to ensure the vast majority of staff and students could return to the classroom.

The 51 private secondary schools in the fee-paying sector argue, however, that they have been unfairly excluded from automatically accessing the fund. Instead they will have to apply on a case-by-case basis and demonstrate difficulties in implementing safety measures. They argue that these barriers may compromise the health of staff and students by limiting access to hand sanitiser, cleaning services and funds to alter classrooms to comply with physical distancing rules.

Treating private schools differently will hardly stoke up any political trouble. If anything, targeting the sector is a populist measure. The very term “fee-paying” suggests elite schools. But included are schools that charge modest fees, and low to middle-income taxpaying families make great sacrifices to send their children there. These schools often struggle to maintain their facilities and offer subject choices. Some fee-paying schools are private for historical reasons, especially those with a Protestant ethos, and stayed outside Donogh O’Malley’s free education scheme because their fees were just over the threshold set at the time.

Taxpayer support for private schools is not new. Most teachers’ salaries are paid for by the State, while schools also receive capital funding, though proportionately less than others due to their ability to generate funds privately. What is new is that barriers are being put in place to them accessing basic safety measures.

The Government’s response during the early days of the pandemic was marked by welcome measures to support all citizens. Public and private firms received vital financial support. It is worrying, then, that in the education sector the State should start to treat schools differently on the important issue of protecting the health of staff and students.