EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has insisted that he does not want to close fee-paying schools as pressure mounts on him to reduce the €96m annual subsidy they receive from the State.
It came after an analysis by his department showing that, on average, a fee-paying school has an extra €1.5m a year to spend on its pupils over and above a similar-sized school in the free education scheme.
And it has re-opened the coalition divisions on the issue, with many Labour TDs pitting themselves against Fine Gael backbenchers by arguing for a complete halt to the State's payment of teachers' wages in the 55 fee-paying secondary schools.
But Mr Quinn, a former pupil of the fee-paying Blackrock College, gave a clear pledge that he was not out to shut down such schools.
"Do I want to close down fee-paying schools, No I do not. Do I want to give parents a choice as to how they spend their money? Yes, I do. But that has to be tempered against the overall requirement to get equity and fairness in the country," he said.
The report has given Mr Quinn the scope to further increase the pupil-teacher ratio in private schools from the current 23:1 to 28:1. This means the State would be paying for fewer teachers there, compared to mainstream schools, which have a pupil teacher ratio of 19:1. Mr Quinn has already increased the ratio in private schools in his last two Budgets.
But Fine Gael Dublin South East TD Eoghan Murphy – who attended the fee-paying St Michael's College in Dublin – came out strongly against any further cuts to fee-paying schools. He said they were saving the State money as they did not qualify for certain grants.
"So what we really want is for more people to send their kids to fee-paying schools, so it saves the State even more money. And they can re-invest that money in free schools," he said.
But Labour Dublin South West TD Eamonn Maloney said fee-paying schools were being subsidised by the majority of taxpayers to educate the children of the privileged.