An unusual but not unique feature of the Irish education system is the fact that the State subsidises private fee-paying secondary schools. There is now some prospect that this may change after the next election, if Sinn Féin enters government and delivers on its promise to phase out the subvention.
As a matter of principle, the party’s policy has merit. Parents have a constitutional right to decide what education is most appropriate for their children. But, given that all children are guaranteed access to a place in free education, there is no compelling moral or strategic justification for the annual subsidy of over €100 million which the State currently provides to schools whose gates are shut to the many students whose parents are unable to pay fees which on average amount to several thousand euro per annum.
Data shows students from these schools perform disproportionately well in gaining access to third level courses with the highest points requirements. Other research suggests this academic success may be less attributable to the schools themselves than it is to the personal profile and socio-economic background of the students. It is hard to deny that these schools play a part in maintaining advantage from one generation to the next and in building social networks that last into adulthood, often with significant professional benefits. Fee-paying schools, many of them clustered in more affluent parts of the country, help to entrench existing class divisions and act as a drag on social mobility. It is understandable why this would be attractive to some parents. It is less clear why it should be supported financially by the State, which is committed, rhetorically at least, to an education system that is equitable and open to all.
Defenders of the current system argue that removing the subsidy would force schools to move into the non-fee-paying sector, thereby increasing the cost to the exchequer, since free schools receive larger capitation and capital grants. Others predict that the change would lead to the emergence of an even more elitist layer of private educational establishments, charging multiples of current fees, as is the case in the UK. Both outcomes are possible, and their implications should be discussed in full ahead of any policy change. So should the important role the subsidy has historically played in supporting the provision of education for boarding school students from minority faith backgrounds who cannot access it locally.
Inequality, educational attainment and geographical location are so tightly intertwined, in urban Ireland in particular, that any change to the current system is unlikely to radically alter the overall landscape for students. But it would be a positive assertion of what should be a core value in education policy and would broaden the possibilities for some at least.