Why should the taxpayer fund institutions of privilege?

 

OPINION:The cutback to funding of Protestant schools is a marginal reduction in what is an extraordinarily generous arrangement, writes SEAN BYRNE.

THE RURAL primary school I attended until I was in fifth class was built in 1832. When it was being planned, the local Catholic parish priest wrote to the Board of Education stating that a four-room school would be needed to cater for the number of children in the parish.

The local Church of Ireland clergyman, who, despite his tiny flock, lived in some comfort on the tithes extracted from impoverished Catholic tenants of the landlord who had given him his “living”, also wrote to the Board of Education stating that a three-room school would suffice.

His advice was accepted and a school with three rooms was built. When the school opened it was not adequate for the number of children who turned up for enrolment and about 20 were turned away.

I thought of those children deprived of their only chance to escape dire poverty at the whim of a Protestant clergyman, when I read of the protests by Bishop John Neill of the Church of Ireland and other Protestant representatives against the decision of the Government to marginally reduce the very generous State subsidy which had been paid to fee-paying Protestant schools for almost 40 years.

When free secondary education was introduced, the decision on whether or not to participate in the free scheme was left up to the individual schools. The schools that decided to participate in the free scheme were paid a capitation fee per pupil to cover the costs of running the school other than teachers’ salaries.

The salaries of teachers in Catholic schools that retained fees continue to be paid by the State but the schools do not receive capitation payments. Income from fees pays for non-teaching costs in fee-paying schools.

When the free scheme was introduced all Protestant (mainly Church of Ireland) secondary schools were fee-paying. A small number of Protestant schools amalgamated into five comprehensive schools under Protestant patronage and entered the free scheme but all the rest opted to remain fee-paying.

An extraordinarily generous scheme was then introduced to help members of the Protestant churches to maintain their “ethos”.

A block grant is given each year to the Protestant churches from which they dispense funds to their fee-paying schools to enable pupils whose parents cannot afford the fees to attend those schools as boarders.

Effectively, Protestant boarding schools are treated as if they were in the free scheme while charging fees.

An additional “ancillary” grant, which has now been abolished, was also given to these schools to pay for secretaries, caretakers etc. The Protestant fee-paying schools are therefore the best resourced in Ireland.

The decision, on which Protestant pupils are to be educated at little or no cost to their parents at the country’s most exclusive fee-paying schools, is made by the Protestant churches entirely at their discretion, and with no scrutiny by the Department of Education. Although a means test is supposed to be applied, it is not stringent, as many children whose parents are certainly not poor qualify.

The outcome of this generosity to Protestants is that they are guaranteed access to a secondary school which accords with their ethos. The ethos of non believers is not similarly protected. Apart from the five Protestant community and comprehensive schools, all other community schools are Catholic.

Non believers therefore have no access to schools which are not controlled by a religious denomination, other than a small number of community colleges under the control of the VECs. While non believing pupils will be accepted in all community schools, they face the embarrassment of withdrawing from religion classes and other religion related activities if they do not wish to absorb the school’s “ethos”.

The term Protestant school is misleading as there is no school in Ireland which admits only Protestant pupils who are committed to their faith.

In the case of the larger Protestant schools such as the King’s Hospital, Wesley College, and Alexandra College, it is not clear whether even a majority of pupils are Irish Protestants.

Many of the Protestant pupils in those schools are not committed members of their churches and are Protestant only in a cultural sense.

A large number of pupils in these schools are either Catholics, non-believers, or the children of affluent foreigners, of any or no denomination, for whom Irish boarding schools offer better value for money than those in the UK. What they seek from the school is not a “Protestant ethos” but a socially exclusive education.

When President Mary McAleese sent her son to the King’s Hospital School, which has a large carving of the coat of arms of the British crown in its entrance hall, it is unlikely, given her much vaunted Catholicism, that she hoped he would imbibe the school’s “Protestant ethos”.

The “Protestant ethos” of Alexandra College did not deter the school from telling a boarding pupil that she must leave the school because her parents could no longer pay the fees. If the girl were a Protestant she might be entitled to have her fee paid by the taxpayer because of her parents’ reduced circumstances.

[In a statement, Alexandra College said the girl’s family had a debt of some €20,000 accumulated over two years. “Regrettably, we reached a situation in March where it became necessary to issue a final ultimatum that in the event of the successive proposals by the college to resolve the matter not being acted upon, it would be necessary to discontinue the provision of educational services,” the school said last week.]

The ending of the “ancillary grant” to Protestant schools is a marginal reduction in their generous funding at a time when a larger cut has been made in the funding of assistants for children with special needs.

Astonishingly, some Protestant schools do not even seem to see how privileged they are. The principal of Wilson’s Hospital School, Adrian Oughton, asserted that his school (described on its website as “the Church of Ireland Diocesan school of Meath and Kildare”) is not “exclusive” despite being a fee-paying boarding school with selective entry.

In an interview in The Irish Times(May 16th, 2009), Niall McMonagle, a teacher of English at Wesley College, described the facilities at the school, saying: “This is privilege.”

All the so-called Protestant schools enjoy a similar level of privilege and the question must be asked why Catholics and taxpayers of other denominations or none should subsidise an exclusive education for a privileged minority when many of their own children must endure being educated in leaky prefabs.


Sean Byrne is a lecturer in Economics in the Business Faculty of Dublin Institute of Technology

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