Wednesday 18 October 2017

The fees report: Schools fees are on the rise again amid growing confidence

The Irish Independent Fees Report reveals that most schools have increased their charges this year after a turbulent period during the recession when the overall number of private schools dropped from 55 to 51

Fee increases across the sector this year range from €40 to €300, although some schools have held steady (Stock picture)
Fee increases across the sector this year range from €40 to €300, although some schools have held steady (Stock picture)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Pupil numbers and fees in private schools are continuing to rise as the economy recovers. Most fee-charging schools have raised their fees this year, reflecting a growing confidence about the willingness and ability of families to pay for their children's education.

However, against the trend, the high-profile St Columba's, Rathfarnham, has cut its fees sharply because they were out of step with the rest of the market in the south Dublin private school heartland.

While the typical increases in both fees and enrolments across the 51-school sector are modest, there is a definite upward swing since the depths of the downturn.

Government budget cuts, linked to the recession, took their toll on the sector, and the overall number of private schools fell from 55 to 51.

Many private schools have big financial stockpiles, but others do not and could not withstand the reduction in State-paid teachers, implemented between 2011 and 2013 to save money after the financial crash.

However, those in a sufficiently healthy financial state to weather the economic storm are now enjoying a bounce.

The most up-to-date pupil numbers refer to 2015/16, when total enrolments in the 51 schools stood at 24,706, up almost 1,000 since 2011/12. There will be a further drop in the number of fee-paying schools in June 2019, when Notre Dame des Missions, Churchtown, south Dublin closes its doors. Enrolments there currently stand at about 150.

Notre Dame struggled for a number of years and the school trust attributed the decision to close to insufficient income to repay loans/mortgage, increasing operating costs and the need for significant investment in infrastructure.

Fee increases across the sector this year range from €40 to €300, although some schools have held steady.

In the current year, annual fees for day pupils in the sector tend to be in the region of €4,000-€7,000.

Some also charge what is known as a day-boarder rate, which covers extras such as after-school study and evening meals. For instance, in Midleton College, Cork, where the day pupil fees are €4,800, the day boarder rate is €7,000.

While the figures on the tables on these pages represent enrolments in the last school year, there is strong anecdotal evidence of a further boost in pupil numbers in the current school year, the official figures for which will not be available for some months.

As reported elsewhere on these pages, the sector is preparing itself for a Brexit spin-off and a growing international business in the recruitment of students for English-speaking second-level education.

The funding certainty coming from such business will be welcomed by many schools. In some cases, multinational companies actually pay a retainer to schools to hold places for children of executives, whether they take them up or not.

Fee-paying schools represent 7pc of the 730 second-level schools in the country, and are a source of much contention because of the high concentration of their past pupils dominating entry to university and some of the most in-demand courses in third-level, such as medicine.

From a State-funding point of view, the difference between fee-paying schools and those in the Free Education scheme is that the former do not receive grants for day-to-day running costs, or for building works. The Department of Education now pays for one teacher for every 23 pupils in schools that charge fees, compared with one teacher for 19 pupils in the Free Education scheme.

But with the income from fees, the private schools can offer smaller classes and other benefits, which are seen to give their pupils further advantages in the "points race" for college entry.

The policy of both the Teachers' Union of Ireland and the Labour Party is for the scrapping of all State aid to fee-paying schools. Most of this subsidy - around €80m - is in the form of payment of teachers' salaries. 

Comment: Private schools have an obligation they don't always meet

Labour's policy caused tensions in the previous Coalition government, as did proposals for a new law governing enrolment of students in all 4,000 primary and second-level schools.

Initially, the then-education minister Ruairi Quinn proposed to ban the reserving of places for children of past pupils, but this was strongly opposed by fee-paying schools.

They said it would hamper their fundraising efforts as past pupils would be discouraged from making donations to their old schools if there was no guaranteed place for their sons or daughters. Many in Fine Gael supported their stand.

Eventually, Mr Quinn agreed to allow the schools to keep up to 25pc of places for past pupils. But his successor Jan O'Sullivan, also a Labour minister, suggested a lower cap of only 10pc - which sparked a new row within the government.

The General Election intervened before the draft bill was passed into law. The current Education Minister Richard Bruton has promised to enact it this year and has spoken about setting the cap on enrolments of children of past pupils at 25pc, similar to what Mr Quinn proposed.

Irish Independent

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