Time to call time on State funding for fee-paying schools?

In the school year 2009-2010 the State paid out more than €107 million to fee-paying schools to cover the costs of salaries for teachers, clerical officers and special needs assistants in those schools. In the same year, more than €12 million was given to these schools in capital grants, grants for assistive technologies, and grants for computers and other ICTs. There are 56 fee-paying schools in the State. The State’s 776 free post primary schools* received just short of €46 million in grants for ICTs in 2010; fee-paying schools received €2.5 million. At a rough calculation (and bearing in mind the monies would not have been distributed evenly) this works out at just shy of €60,000 for each free post primary school, and €45,500 per fee-charging school. In total, between January 2007 and May 2011, fee-charging schools have received more than €531 million from the State to pay teachers, admin staff, install or upgrade ICT infrastructure, and build or upgrade school buildings. The 2009 McCarthy report estimated that, between them, these 56 schools raise €119 million annually in fees from parents.

The Government will save some €2.7 million through the removal of 227 Special Needs Assistant posts in Irish schools, assuming all those unemployed SNAs are entitled to Jobseeker’s Benefit. Resource teaching posts for Travellers and the Visiting Teachers for Traveller Service were withdrawn in Budget 2011, effective 31 August this year. Language support has seen cutbacks in allocation. Rural co-ordinators for 331 DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity In Schools) schools were removed as part of Budget 2011 in order to save €24 million (although this figure does not take into account the cost to the exchequer of Jobseeker’s Benefit for those Rural Co-ordinators who subsequently went onto the Live Register) a cut which the current Government has no plan to reverse. Only two-thirds of the €150 million pledged as part of the Smart Schools=Smart Economy scheme launched in 2009 has been disbursed; the €63 million that was to be given to schools in 2011 was cut in December’s budget to €1.5 million. (The annual budget of €30 million “for support, rolling replacement and enhancement of the service” recommended by the Joint Advisory Group on the scheme seems to have been entirely abandoned.) In the context of such brutal austerity – not just in education, but across the board - and the infliction of the consequences of this austerity on some of the most vulnerable children in the State, the question must be asked: why do we continue to fund these fee-paying schools to such a degree?

A brief history of fee-paying schools in the State

Fianna Fáil Minister for Education Donagh O’Malley introduced free post-primary education in 1967. Prior to that date, all voluntary secondary schools in the State charged fees. Recognising that it would be impractical for the State to provide free education in day schools to geographically dispersed Protestant communities, an ad hoc solution was agreed upon: the State would provide ‘block grants’ to (necessarily fee-paying) Protestant boarding schools to cover capitation, tuition and board. The purpose of these ‘block grants’ was to allow those pupils who could not afford to pay boarding fees attend a school that reflected their religious faith. As Ferdia Kelly, General Secretary of the Joint Managerial Body which represents voluntary secondary schools, put it to the Joint Education Committee on Education and Science in 2009:

Equitable treatment was achieved by placing all voluntary secondary schools from the minority faith sector in the free education scheme while continuing to allow them to charge fees. In particular, this meant that the per capita grant made available to all Catholic schools was paid en bloc to a committee, called the secondary education committee, representing the main Protestant churches, and this was to be dispersed to minority families in need of support so that fees could be paid.

In addition to block grants, the State also provided Protestant fee-paying schools with ancillary grants up to 2008, when they were discontinued, amidst some controversy.

Majority and minority faiths

At present, 21 of the State’s fee-paying schools represent minority faith traditions; the rest are under the trusteeship of Catholic trustees. This latter group comprises those voluntary schools which, for one reason or another, chose not to join the free education scheme in 1967. The abolition of ancillary grants to minority faith schools in 2008 was described by then Minister for Education as “bringing Protestant fee-paying schools into line with Catholic fee-paying schools”, though, as Mairéad Enright points out:

Protestant schools affected by the measures take in a large number of boarders from low income families whose fees are paid by the state, and so they are not comparable to Catholic fee paying schools, which house the children of what one columnist in the Irish Times likes to call (with tongue surprisingly far from cheek) ‘the formerly wealthy’.

So long as the State remains committed to not establishing a comprehensive system of non-denominational schools it is at least arguable that it should continue to subsidise those fee-paying schools which cater for minority faiths. (This argument would obviously also call for State subsidy for fee-paying atheist, Muslim or Jehovah’s Witness schools, by the same logic of geographic dispersal and limited choice.) However the question remains as to whether or not it should afford the same subsidies to fee-paying Catholic schools, given that pupils who attend such schools could just as easily attend one of the 344 free Catholic voluntary schools scattered around the State, should the need to be educated within the Catholic ethos be of pressing concern to them.

Fee-paying schools and the Constitution

One line of argument frequently extended is that the State would leave itself open to a Constitutional challenge should it withdraw funding from such schools. According to Eoin Daly, lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, this is “very much an unresolved and unclear question of constitutional interpretation.” He goes on:

On the one hand, Article 42 says the State will "endeavour" to support private educational initiative, although this is hedged in all sorts of qualifications. On the other hand, the overriding principle in Article 42 is the concept of parental choice, which is sometimes interpreted as meaning that in determining what schools to recognise and fund, the State must take actual parental choice into account.

It has been said by the High Court the state cannot provide a 'one size fits all' education system which disregards parents' lawful preferences. So if the State were to refuse to fund schools of a particular ethos, at least a legitimate peaceful ethos, this would contravene parental choice as protected by Article 42. On the other hand, I think those who suggest that this principle protects fee-paying schools are wrong. To confine state funding to 'free paying' schools would not be to exclude or discriminate any parental choice of worldview or ethos as such.

In the same case where the High Court said the state couldn't supply a 'one-size fits all' system without regard to parental 'choice', it also said that the state was entitled, even obliged, to use 'rational criteria' for determining which schools were allocated recognition and funding. As long as the criteria used are related to public policy - such as the desire to secure equality of access - and are not used to exclude or discriminate against some legitimate choice of ethos or worldview – then I do not believe that the confinement of state funds to non fee-paying schools would be unconstitutional.

Discrimination and exclusion

Perhaps the most vexing issue of all with regard to fee-paying schools is that they operate exclusionary admissions policies. Obviously, in common with all schools in the State, these schools must comply with the Education Act of 1998 and publish their admissions policy; equally, if a child is refused admission to such a school, they have the right to appeal that decision under Section 29 of the same Act. However, it is not clear how exactly a parent who can’t afford to pay the fees necessary for their child to attend such a school might appeal an application for admission they didn’t make being refused. The Education Act also states that no child can be excluded from any school based on their social background; it is silent, however, on the matter of exclusion based on inability to pay. As a side note, when the Department of Education conducted a national audit of schools’ enrolment policies in 2007, fee-paying schools were not audited.

They are “close to the bottom of the table” in the number of special needs, minority ethnic and Traveller children they admit, and while details on the demographics of their pupils are not available, Gerry Foley of the fee-paying Belvedere College in Dublin told the Joint Education Committee on Education and Science in 2009 that “10% of our intake is from a lower socioeconomic background…[that] figure refers specifically to students who are in receipt of bursaries.” Although he did not clarify the terms by which individuals were adjudged to be of ‘lower socioeconomic background’, he did say that “Parents must show that they cannot pay the fees,” in order for their child to qualify to apply for a bursary. One assumes that the cohort of parents who ‘cannot’ pay fees of more than €5000 for their child to attend a day school is quite large.

There is some indication that Catholic fee-paying schools, in particular, are coming to be seen as fair game, both within the Catholic church itself and without. In a position paper published in April of this year, the Catholic Schools Partnership said:

Catholic fee-paying schools must make serious efforts to reach out to socially deprived communities, to pupils with special needs and to foster an ever deeper sense of social awareness among all members of their school communities. Otherwise, they risk becoming a sign that is contradictory in terms of Christ’s mission. It is the responsibility of the leaders of all schools to foster an ever deeper sense of social inclusion and service of the common good.

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn began making noises last May, meanwhile, about reviewing capital grants, ICT grants and current expenditure subsidies for fee-paying schools. However, he has no plans to stop paying teachers’ salaries in these schools anytime soon.

*comprising 642 second level schools, 110 Youthreach Centres, three former children’s detention centres and 21 post-leaving cert facilities run by VECs.


Image top: Fergal of Claddagh.