State is responsible for us having fee-paying schools — it’s their plan

I WISH my son wasn’t at a fee-paying school.

“Take him out, then!” you cry. But it’s not as simple as that. In my son’s south Dublin community, fee-paying schools are the usual choice for boys, to the point that one of my friends, single and a student, has struggled to send her son to one of them.

The truth is that fee-paying schools have been part of the State’s school provision since its foundation. In the hoo-haa since junior minister Alan Kelly dropped his bombshell on The Week in Politics about the State reducing its subvention to fee-paying schools, this point has been missed: It is the State’s plan for certain children to go to fee-paying schools.

Take my son, Exhibit A. Yes, there are good “free” schools he could access from his south Dublin home. But that’s not the point. His community is built around the local schools and the local schools for boys are fee-paying. Not to go to one of them would mean exporting him from his community. I wouldn’t be prepared to do that unless I really couldn’t make the extra dosh.

We should have thought all this through before we moved to this part of Dublin. And we sort of did. There is one “free” school which services our national school community: Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, which is through Irish.

My son was down for this school from the day I saw a blue line on the pregnancy test. But when sixth class dawned he looked at me straight and said: “I’m unwilling to go on through Irish.”

How could I force him? I wasn’t educated through Irish. I envisioned mulish rebellion by a third year and reviewed the other options, both fee-paying, which would offer us places for spurious reasons: Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, because his dad went there, and the High School, Rathgar, because I am a member of the Church of Ireland. He plumped for Gonzaga because his friends were going.

It’s superb. And yes, I do see the benefits to my son of those fees. A class size in the low twenties. More subject choices. And there’s the fact that he doesn’t have to use any of his energy coping with diversity.

But diversity is a profound loss. We look around us at school events and see no-one any different from ourselves. No-one who isn’t Irish. No-one who’s not middle-class. You don’t meet sculptors, you don’t meet struggling, book-a-decade writers or failing but funky restaurant owners. You just don’t get the fantastic diversity you met at his national school.

I swear to God I would not choose to have my kid educated in this bubble if I had better choices. But by offering fee-paying schools as part of its provision, the State has decreed that these bubbles will exist. And they will queer the pitch of education in the entire area because they often suck the middle class out of the “free” schools.

Fee-payings schools are made up almost entirely of the aspirational middle classes and so are crammed at the top of the notorious tables of “feeder schools” for universities. Further queering the pitch for everyone else.

Another key point has been forgotten: The main material advantage these schools offer is the amount of money they collect from their parents and alumni. My old school, St Andrews College in Dublin, built a beautiful new wing in 2010 on which €5.7m is still owing and to which I have been asked to donate. My son’s school spent €20m in 2007 and doubled the size of its campus by building a new library, an IT suite, 16 classrooms, and a theatre. The target of the second phase of fund-raising, begun only last year, is €6m, of which €4.5m has already been raised.

Despite the fundraising advantages which fee-paying schools have, the State has disbursed millions towards the infrastructure of some of them, culminating in 2005, under then-education minister Mary Hanafin, with grant approval for five such schools, including St Andrews College and CBC Monkstown. Remember — these schools are State policy. Don’t blame the parents who send their kids to them. It is the State which has decided to save itself over €90m a year, as well as a lot of bother, by paying the teachers in fee-paying schools.

My son’s Jesuit school applied to become a “free” school with a nearby girls’ school in the 1970s and was turned down. All my children would now be enrolled in that school and our financial situation would be completely different. Not many of the local parents at my son’s school are ideologically committed to paying fees: They happily send their girls to the local free schools. In our area, having girls is money in the bank.

How can this dog’s breakfast be justified purely on the basis that it saves the State money? The two-tier system fails everyone. It even fails the kids who go to fee-paying schools and never meet anyone different to themselves. Not to mention the fact that fee-paying schools are not subject to the same scrutiny as “free” schools. Parents at a south Dublin school recently found out that not all the teachers were registered with the Teaching Council. State-paid teachers must be registered, but at a fee-paying school there are teachers who are not State-paid.

This happened in a Protestant school and it is because of an ill-thought-out attempt to help Protestants that this whole mess happened. For the history, I looked no further than my father Jack White’s 1974 book on the Protestants of the south, Minority Report.

WHAT it all came down to, apparently, was celibacy. The Free Education Scheme advanced by Donogh O’Malley priced in the contribution of the religious orders to Catholic education. A Protestant headmaster explained to my father that Protestant schools needed to charge fees so they could pay teachers a family wage. My father accepted this rationale at the time, but it has absolutely no relevance today.

Some other schools followed the Protestant lead and opted to stay out of the free scheme. And there we had it: The two-tier system.

Donogh O’Malley made a further deal with the Protestant schools whereby, because of the challenges of their minority status, they were funded, essentially, as “free” schools but could still charge fees. When the State moved to put Protestant fee-paying schools on the same footing as other fee-paying schools in 2010 the schools argued strongly it would undermine their ability to include less well-off children. And I was left asking the question: Why do they charge fees at all? Isn’t entering the free scheme the way to maximise diversity?

“But where does that leave me?” says my friend, who is a devout member of the Church of Ireland and earning very little. She has no Protestant comprehensive school close by. She has to go to a fee-paying school and plead for special mercy.

Which brings me back to the same point: It is the State which is responsible for the fact that we have fee-paying schools. Their presence corrupts and divides educational provision in this country. They should be given a period of grace to enter the free scheme or go entirely private.

And the State should accept once and for all its responsibility for educating our kids.

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