Struggle for parents to pay exclusive school fees
But rising enrolments show many families make sacrifices for children's education, writes Maeve Sheehan
WHEN Ken Lee's marriage broke down, his teenage son's schooling was an unexpected casualty. Legal fees mounted. The family home in Stepaside in south Dublin was up for sale. Last spring, he struggled to pay the fees for their son's private school in Ranelagh.
Daragh, now 18, was a pupil at Sandford Park, an exclusive boys' day school where annual fees were €7,200. The Lees had paid more than half the fees but €2,782 was still outstanding when Daragh returned to school after the summer break.
Daragh was to have sat his Leaving Certificate that year. On August 26 last year, the first day of term, he turned up for school but was sent home again shortly afterwards, according to evidence later given in court.
Ken claimed that his son had been "humiliated" in front of his classmates. Recalling the incident this weekend Ken claimed that his son's friends were texting Daragh wondering what was going on while he waited to be escorted home.
"I could see he was put out by the whole thing . . . not in an emotional sense but kind of angry and embarrassed," said Ken, who was furious about the treatment of his son.
Daragh never returned to Sandford Park, nor did he finish his final year at school. Instead he moved to Finland, where he lives with his girlfriend's family.
Sandford Park sued to get its outstanding fees. At a hearing in Dublin District Court in July, Ken accused the school of being "reckless, ruthless and having no regard" for his son's welfare, failing to account for his childhood leukaemia and his parents' divorce. He claimed the school was aware of the family's difficult circumstances and he had given his word he would pay the fees once the family home was sold.
The school, for its part, disputed that there had been any undertaking to pay the fees, and said the board had been "crystal clear" that the debt would have to be settled before Daragh could enter his Leaving Cert year. And the school had a policy of not carrying over outstanding fees because parents would get into further debt, the court heard.
Ken was ordered to pay the fees although not the school's legal costs by Judge Mary Collins, who described the case as "desperately unfortunate". The person most affected by it, she said, was Daragh.
Court cases over non-payment of school fees are a rarity, as are reports of children being removed because of parents' inability to pay. In fact, increasing enrolment figures suggest fee-paying schools are booming.
Nevertheless, Ken believes he is part of a "silent majority" as a parent who struggled to meet the school fees.
"When one experiences difficulties, particularly financial difficulties, what comes
out of the woodwork is absolutely unbelievable, whether it's banks, building societies, credit unions, anyone," he said, adding that he is now out the other end of that difficult patch.
A former RTE employee -- he looked after 'visuals' for the news -- he took early retirement to set up his own business but is now fully retired. He never received benefits, and has cleared debts of €346,000 after selling the house, he said.
"I would probably be an example of a great number of people on this island, in this country, who are hard-working . . . I think there is a silent majority of people who have taken a lot of abuse, particularly when things get difficult," Ken said.
Yet reports last week suggested that although the country is in deep recession, parents are clamouring in ever-greater numbers to get their children into fee-paying schools. One study showed that the numbers at St Gerard's in Bray increased by 28 per cent in the decade and, recession or not, the increase continues: 483 students enrolled there last year and 496 have enrolled this year.
Increases in student numbers have been reported in Mount Anville, Belvedere and Wesley College.
Fees for a privileged education average at around €5,000 a year for each child.
Business might be booming but that doesn't mean that parents aren't struggling. Most just won't talk about it. Schools will not discuss fees, for reasons of confidentiality and sensitivity to the families involved. Legal action is rare. Most schools come to an arrangement on a case-by-case basis. And while some private schools have increased their fees, others have dropped them.
Midleton College, which serves the Protestant community in the largely rural counties of Cork and Waterford, decided to cut its fees this year by 7 per cent in response to the recession. The number of pupils has increased -- from 325 to 341 this year. Simon Thompson, the headmaster, said the school board's decision was informed by the experiences of families in the region. "People are finding it very, very difficult," he said.
The Teresian secondary school in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, has not increased fees "on principle". Natuca Cordon, the principal, said the "crisis" was noticeable in all sorts of ways, even from the revival in home-packed lunches to water bottles being filled at the school tap rather than purchased over the counter.
Alexandra College, one of the most exclusive girls' schools in Dublin, imposed a moratorium on its fees for three years before deciding to increase them by just over 1 per cent this year. The school's principal, Barbara Ennis, said parents are willing to make huge sacrifices to pay for an education that they value.
Fees at Belvedere College in Dublin have not risen in three years. Gerard Foley, the headmaster, said the increase in demand for places was partly due to the significant rise in the numbers entering secondary school generally. "Of course, there are parents who are struggling during these really difficult times for so many people. And there are indeed parents finding it difficult to cover the cost of fees and the college is very sensitive to this issue and to those parents," he said.
The plight of parents struggling to pay private school fees will raise little sympathy in some quarters. The State gives €100m a year to 55 private schools, most of it going on teachers' wages, and another €100m comes from school fees.
While parents of some of the 26,000 students in fee-paying schools may grapple with fees averaging €5,000, almost 200,000 parents cannot afford to buy their children's school uniforms, according to the applications for the back-to-school allowance. "If people want to buy a private education, that's fine. But they must pay the full economic cost," said Peter McMenamin, of the Teachers' Union of Ireland.
Ken has no regrets in talking about his own case. "I knew the risk I was taking by going public. But why should I be ashamed of anyone knowing anything? I've done nothing wrong. I think the silent majority is too embarrassed to say we need help here or we are having a difficulty or the going is tough or rough," he said.
"We should . . . not concern ourselves with what anyone thinks. When difficulties present themselves in our lives, the people who really love us are the only ones who matter and they don't judge."
Sandford Park did not return calls to the Sunday Independent.