The Irish Times view on funding private schools: a complicated class act

Every child in State-funded education should have the same opportunity to reach their full potential

‘All our children in State-funded education should have access to a range of subjects.’ File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘All our children in State-funded education should have access to a range of subjects.’ File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

Latest figures show taxpayers subsidised the country’s 51 fee-paying schools by more than €90 million last year. The vast bulk of this went on salaries for teachers, along with capital expenditure, grants for computer equipment and sports facilities.The extent to which taxpayers are funding what many see as elite schools has prompted anger in some quarters. The Labour Party says public subsidies should be halted on the basis that the fee-paying sector reinforces inequality by excluding children based on the income of their parents. These schools, it is argued, are aimed at the rich and privileged in society who already have a head start in life.

Private schools, however, argue that this picture is misleading. They say fee-paying schools cater for many low-to-middle income families who make great sacrifices to send their children to them. Ending State subsidies for many schools would also likely lead to at least some of these schools joining the free education scheme at a cost to the taxpayer.

It is vital to ensure non fee-paying schools receive enough State funding

What is not in doubt is the fact that our secondary education system is being run on a relative shoe-string compared with many other top-performing countries. OECD figures indicate investment in education in the State as a percentage of national wealth languishes at the bottom end of the league table for wealthy countries.

The Government’s policy during the recession was, rightly, to cut State subsidies to the point where fee-paying schools have an inferior pupil-teacher ratio compared with schools in the free scheme. Now that enrolments have recovered and the sector is growing, there may well be scope for further reductions, especially for larger schools with cash reserves and enviable facilities. It is also vital to ensure non fee-paying schools receive enough State funding to ensure they are not disadvantaged in any way and can compete with the best of the private sector.

All our children in State-funded education should have access to a range of subjects and education supports that are not limited on the basis of their parents’ income. Every child should have the same opportunity to reach their full potential.