VICTORIA WHITE: It’s time to start outlawing the charging of fees for State schools

Donagh Brendan O'Malley, who introduced free secondary education in 1967.

Why does the State spend an annual figure of €6.75m on the Protestant Block Grant which supports Protestants who need it with school fees? asks Victoria White

THIS week we learned that the fee-charging schools have consolidated their grip on college courses requiring high points, with 20 of the top 25 “feeder schools” charging fees. This is a big jump from 2013 when fee-charging schools were in 16 of the top 25 slots.

This deepens my unease that Protestant children are still subsidised by the State to go to fee-charging schools in ways Catholic children are not. The story dates to when Donogh O’Malley introduced free secondary education in 1967. Most Protestant schools insisted they had to charge fees because they didn’t have the free services of the religious orders and they had to provide for boarders. From then until Budget 2009, Protestant schools were unique in being subsidised by the State with capitation as if they were free schools but also allowed to charge fees.

The then education minster, Batt O’Keeffe, axed this privilege in the wake of the financial crisis and Protestant fee-charging schools were put on the same footing as Catholic fee-charging schools. This was long overdue. Capitation had increased over the years as most Catholic schools no longer had the advantage of free labour from highly qualified religious. Boarding is a separate issue and is provided for by a means-tested grant for Protestants called the Protestant Block Grant.

The Fianna Fáil-led coalition, followed by the Fine Gael-led coalition, decreased the number of teachers provided to fee-charging schools in the belief that they had the resources to pay extra teachers themselves. Because 19 Protestant schools had stayed in the fee-charging sector, they were disproportionately affected and cried “discrimination”.

Nowhere in the official response of the Protestant secondary schools, Catering for Disadvantage, is it allowed that Protestant fee-charging schools could join the free scheme like the other 700-odd secondary schools in the State. Though two Protestant secondary schools did just that: Kilkenny College and Wilson’s Hospital in Co Westmeath.

Catering for Disadvantage had cited the fee-charging Kilkenny College in tragic tones in “the case of a Presbyterian family living in Carlow”. It is not a Presbyterian school, but as a Church of Ireland school, it was deemed “appropriate” by this family. Why this should be is far from clear, because the Anglican tradition is at least as close to Catholicism as it is to Presbyterianism, depending on your cleric and culture.

But no, these Carlow Presbyterians reckoned they had no choice but to head to Kilkenny “if their children are to attend a school that reflects the ethos that they would wish for their children as is their constitutional right”.

Catering for Disadvantage outlines Kilkenny College’s options: “The fees will have to increase to cope with the cut in state support or the school will make do with fewer teachers than is provided for in local Catholic schools”.

Or it could enter the free scheme. Stop charging fees. Cater for disadvantage. Which is what it did.

A 2011 study of the fee-charging schools commissioned in 2011 vindicated the 2009 budgetary decision on Protestant schools. It revealed that the 55 fee-charging secondary schools in the State have an average of €1.48m available to them per annum compared with free schools, or €3,177 per student. Clearly there are big discrepancies between them, ranging from €112,000 in extra funding for a small school and €4.7m for a big one. But it argued that there was no reason to distinguish in fiscal terms the 19 fee-charging Protestant schools from the 34 other fee-charging schools on which they reported.

The current teacher allocation for fee-charging schools is 23:1 compared with 19:1 in free schools. The report looked at what would happen to fee-charging schools if the ratio went up to 28:1, as suggested by An Bord Snip Nua. It found that eight big Protestant schools would still be in rude health, with extra income per student ranging from €3,361 to €7,837. And this is without counting the endowments and fundraising advantages which all fee-charging schools enjoy.

Mid-range Protestant schools would come out of such a reduction better than other fee-charging schools in the same range. Four Protestant schools would be among the most severely hit but still better off to the tune of around €241,000 than the free school down the road.

There is no reason for the State to spend money assuring Protestant children will have the advantages of extra subjects, extra teachers, extra extra-curricular activities, and extra networking opportunities which other children do not have. That this happened in the first place was as a result of Partition. The Irish State’s eventual aim of uniting Ireland required the placating of resident Protestants which may have been necessary at one point but certainly isn’t now.

So why does the State currently spend an annual figure of €6.75m on the Protestant Block Grant which supports Protestants who need it with school fees? You can argue the case for the boarding costs. But surely a point has to come when you address the tragic case of “A Methodist family living in Leitrim” with the words: shop local. Particularly in the context of other potentially tragic cases, “A Hindu family living in Waterford” and “A Muslim family living in Monaghan”. Where are their schools? Will we soon have to fund a Muslim Block Grant too?

There are nearly 7,000 students in our fee-charging Protestant schools but we don’t know how many of these are Protestant. Grants are disbursed to between 2,000 and 2,500 of the Protestant children annually. You could arrive from anywhere with a rubber-stamped baptismal cert from any Protestant Church and you’d be away. I have known avowed atheists who have availed of the Block Grant.

Protestant Aid, a Protestant-run aid agency servicing the needy in Ireland, keeps the wolf from many doors but one of its four main areas of provision are school fees and other expenses incurred in attending Protestant-managed schools. I have not been given up to date figures but in 2011 €211,829 was thus spent, out of a spending pot of around €711,200. The State helps fund the charity by way of annual grants: €200,000 in that year.

I don’t believe that any charity should be paying kids’ school fees. You can argue that the State has not put in place an adequate multi-denominational school system. That’s true. But can’t we start by outlawing the charging of fees for State schools? And prioritising children on the basis of their religion for places in any State-funded school, while giving kids the right to absent themselves from religion class and avail of “appropriate” ethical instruction?

There is nothing else for a Protestant to fear from a Catholic school, or vice versa. There is neither Catholic chemistry nor Protestant PE. There is just the opportunity to be with other kids from a marginally different background. Which really can’t, in the year of 2016, be regarded as tragic.


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