Properly funding for all would take the sting out of support for private schools
The €90m figure wouldn’t infuriate other school users if free education was a reality
The Finnish education experience is one worth examining. They have transformed their system with one underlying ethic: equality. Fee-paying schools and fundraising are banned. They have one of the best literacy standards in the world. Photograph: Fishman/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
While we celebrate our Republic as being “the land of saints and scholars”, we routinely separate children on the basis of gender, religion and income. The influence that the fee-paying sector has on our body politic is profound: they have successfully lobbied the Government to include greater school access rights for children and grandchildren of past pupils. It is now legal for a school to set aside places for grandchildren of past pupils over those whose parents or grandparents did not attend the school, or indeed any school. This blue-blood line of succession is now enshrined in the Admission to Schools Act.
The complicating argument for those who advocate a simple and immediate withdrawal of the €90 million in State support for these schools is that the Department of Education does not pay a capitation grant for students attending fee-paying schools, which amounts to €309 per pupil. If all 52 fee-paying schools therefore came into the free State system, the department would be responsible for all building costs as well as capitation grants. This is where the reported €23 million figure for the cost of make all fee-paying schools fully State-funded comes from. Arguably that is not a big price to pay for a genuinely level playing field for our young people.
There has to be a serious injustice where a minority of schools have far more money to spend per pupil because they have an income of thousands of euro in fees per pupil on top of public money to pay most of their teachers’ salaries. That allows them to offer a wider variety of subjects, and to provide more support staff and additional educational opportunities. Perhaps the €90 million figure wouldn’t infuriate those working and learning in the vast majority of our schools if free education was made a genuine reality.
It is estimated that it would cost €40 million to provide the school books for all students in the non fee-paying sector free of charge – at primary and secondary level. You only have to take a short trip to the North to see such a scheme in place for every schoolchild. Another estimated €45 million would eliminate the need for voluntary contributions or mass fundraising among the parent body. Imagine a school community where the conversations focused entirely around education or child welfare and development, and not about money.
Our system is based on choice, which leads to competition and which inevitably delivers a heartbreakingly unequal system
We do not have a State education system in Ireland and it suits the department to point to Bunreacht na hÉireann, most notably articles 42 and 44, to keep the day to day running of schools as someone else’s duty.
Our system is based on choice, which leads to competition and which inevitably delivers a heartbreakingly unequal system. For every government grant to a south Dublin fee-paying school for their hockey pitch there is a disadvantaged school that cannot offer their students higher-level maths or Irish, therefore limiting career options. These are the choices we make as a society. Other societies have made other choices.
The Finnish education experience is one worth examining. Over a period of 50 years, they have transformed their system with one basic underlying ethic: equality. There is one school per school district that is attended by all children from six to 16 years of age. There is no school inspection but teaching is a highly respected profession. Fee-paying schools and fundraising are banned. Children from all backgrounds and abilities mix and learn from each other. They have one of the best literacy standards in the world. Contrast that to Ireland, where 17.9 per cent of our adult population is functionally illiterate.
We can level the playing pitch by properly funding our schools and provide basic materials such as schoolbooks as a right
What should Irish policymakers be saying? Of course it is natural for parents to want the very best for their children. But we can surely show leadership by arguing, as the Finns have, that a more equal system benefits all. Labour’s priority was to disproportionately increase the class sizes of fee-paying schools to lessen the subvention that the State was supplying. We should continue to do this, and to welcome more schools in to the free system. We can level the playing pitch by properly funding our schools and provide basic materials such as schoolbooks as a right.
We can also offer a vision of a system that doesn’t separate: regardless of gender, religion or income. A system that challenges and empowers our young people to be part of a collective that benefits all. That is a vision I’m sure the majority of citizens can support. It may require constitutional change, but it’s a debate worth having.
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party Senator and former school principal.