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Una Mullally: Dublin’s new school for the super-rich

High fees are one thing but the Church’s grip on Irish education is the ultimate elitism

There is something attractive about other people's educations compared to our own: American high schools, Hogwarts, Malory Towers – anything other than the tedium of badly heated prefabs and wallpapered textbooks. Last week, it was announced that Ireland's most expensive private school will be opening in Leopardstown in Dublin, where up to 800 students will have room to learn, in a converted office block formerly used by Microsoft. According to reports, Nord Anglia Education working with businessman Barry O'Callaghan will target an international set: diplomats, the kids of shiny rich tech people, and the high-powered Brexit refugees who are apparently going to materialise in the capital over the next couple of years. This despite the fact that Dublin isn't even at the races when it comes to the kind of infrastructure, housing and standard of living the London City boys and girls at the top of their game would expect. The equivalent schools the firm operates in Europe cost about €20,000 to attend.

Apparently there were 'not enough worldly snacks like seaweed, zucchini bread with quinoa flour and bean quesadillas' on the menu

There are plenty of posh schools in Dublin and elsewhere around the country. In Dublin at least, where school entry is a competitive sport, people project the personalities of schools onto their attendees and alumni. But this new school is something of a game changer, and yet another excuse to wheeze that “the boom is back”. Forget the fact that it’s not economic growth we should be paying attention to but inequality, in a society where a certain cohort of folks seem to be tapping into a lifestyle that was out of reach even during the boom years.


The growth of schools for the rich and super-rich is an intriguing phenomenon. The most ridiculous ones are of course in the US, and are fun to read about if you fancy delving into the delirium of how the other 1 per cent live. Avenues, in Chelsea in New York, for example (annual tuition and fees: $47,650), was brought to wider attention after a 2013 New York Times article detailed parents' concerns about the diversity of food on offer in the school. Apparently there were "not enough 'worldly' snacks like seaweed, zucchini bread with quinoa flour and bean quesadillas" on the menu. And in terms of fees, Avenues doesn't beat the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey ($48,700 a year) or the Salisbury School in Connecticut at $49,092 a year.

We are told that education is a right, not a privilege, but for many it is very privileged indeed. O'Callaghan himself went to Clongowes Wood College and then Trinity, which is a nice set-up. Even though Dublin has the most third-level institutions and the most fee-paying schools, just 47 per cent of pupils in the capital progress to to higher level, with only Louth (46 per cent), Offaly (45 per cent), and Donegal and Laois (41 per cent) worse off, according to 2014 figures from the Higher Education Authority. The education inequality in Dublin is stark. While 99 per cent of school pupils in Dublin 6 went on to third-level education, just 15 per cent in Dublin 17 did, and 16 per cent in Dublin 10. The distance between Rathmines and Ballyfermot is less than eight kilometres, but the gulf is massive.


The ultimate elitism in school entry here is the grip the wealthiest organisation we've ever had on our soil has on our schools: the Catholic Church

As wealth progresses, approaches to security and privacy can often look like a form of withdrawal from wider society. The nervousness that the wealthy experience is reflected in education choices. Private education isn’t necessarily about children and young people, but about the anxiety, aspirations, and insecurities of parents. Sometimes this is dressed up as “tradition”, but I always think it’s funny that parents think their children will be better set up for life if their surroundings are engineered to facilitate interactions with one type of person or section of society, instead of exposing them to a more diverse, interesting and, perhaps, educating reflection of society.

Fee increases

It's interesting to see former Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn involved as a consultant to such an elite education project. Quinn famously promised the Union of Students in Ireland that there would be no fee increases in the run-up to the 2011 election, signing a pledge to oppose and campaign against fee increases. Fees were increased, and Quinn's credibility within the student movement collapsed and was never repaired. Another Barry O'Callaghan initiative involves EduCo, a recruitment and marketing entity that is establishing a base in Ireland in order to tempt more students from India, China and south-east Asia to Ireland for their third-level education. Quinn too, is an advisor to this venture.

But the ultimate elitism in school entry here is the grip the wealthiest organisation we've ever had on our soil has on our schools: the Catholic Church. Remarkably, access to schools still involves parents who have no interest in religion having their children baptised into the Catholic Church. So, without any say in the matter, many children are being inducted into a religion their parents are only collaborating with in order to get them onto a school's waiting list. We might see it as normal given that we inevitably have a distorted lens on the weird grip Catholicism holds on various aspects of Irish society, but it is a truly remarkable situation. Never ones to shy away from a lark, the Catholic Church and pressure groups such as Lolek Ltd, trading as the Iona Institute, are keen to keep this charade going. When it comes to elitism, fees are one thing, but that kind of control is where real power lies, and we must continue to challenge it.