Fee or free? Private schools counting the real cost
To judge by outward appearances Gormanston College does not look like a school on its uppers. Parents arriving with their children approach the school along a driveway lined with oak trees.
The centrepiece is the spectacular Gormanston Castle, once the seat of the aristocratic Preston family, and the college boasts a swimming pool, a vast sports complex and a golf course.
The Franciscan school in Co Meath has educated cabinet ministers, top lawyers and a Hollywood star. Notable alumni include Charlie McCreevy, James Reilly and Colin Farrell. For many years it thrived, but it now desperately needs a revamp.
From next September, Gormanston will enter a new era and cease to be a fee-charging college. Hit by falling numbers and squeezed by the recession, the authorities at the school have decided to enter the free sector. The €6,000 fees for day pupils will be abolished.
"We were very badly affected by the financial collapse of the economy. When the numbers dropped, we still had a lot of fixed costs," Conor O'Brien, chairman of the school's board of management told Weekend Review.
"We believe Gormanston has a very bright future as a school without fees in an area with a fast-growing population."
Ten years ago this would have been unthinkable – and it was the free schools, particularly those in leafy affluent areas of south Dublin, that struggled to maintain numbers.
Private education was considered one of the trappings of wealth during the Celtic Tiger era, and fee-charging schools also attracted students whose parents could hardly be described as rich.
The good times for some of the private schools have well and truly ended. A fifth of the State's 55 fee-charging institutions are thought to have held discussions with the Department of Education about entering the free scheme.
Conor O'Brien of Gormanston says: "You have to adapt if you want to survive."
So far, three schools have called it a day with the ordinary fees – Wilson's Hospital in Westmeath, Kilkenny College and now Gormanston. Ruairi Quinn may be waiting anxiously to see if the steady trickle turns into a flood.
Wilson's Hospital blazed a trail for others when it scrapped its annual €2,500 fees for day pupils in 2011.
Principal Adrian Oughtan told Weekend Review: "Since we changed over we have been inundated with queries from other schools about how it is working. I believe there will be a few more schools that will do it."
So why are these schools keen to scrap the hefty income from fees and offer themselves into the hands of the State? They have done their sums, and calculated that they would be better off.
One teacher told the Irish Independent that this was the only option for some schools: "You can rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, but if you want to survive you run for the lifeboats."
Since the start of the recession, ministers have steadily reduced their funding to private schools. In a free school, the Department of Education pays for one teacher for every 19 pupils. In a fee-charging college the ratio is one to 23.
Schools without fees are also entitled to subsidies for buildings and a range of other grants that private schools don't get.
Wilson's Hospital principal Adrian Oughtan said: "We had a whole building programme at the school with 16 new classrooms and science facilities. We were able to complete it because we got funding from the State."
College authorities and parents at Gormanston hope that new state funding will bring about a revival of the school's fortunes. As well as having to cope with the recession, the school was criticised in a Department of Education inspection report based on a visit in 2009, and since then a new principal, Dermot Lavin, has tried to raise standards.
Parent Dieter Hartfiel, who is delighted with his son Cain's progress in the school, says: "He has got on well there, there are good teachers and he enjoys the sport.
"The school has great facilities, but some of these are a bit dated and in need of rejuvenation."
Until now, Dieter Hartfiel and his wife Emma have had to pay the €6,000 fees.
"Financially it's been a struggle at times, but we believe it's the best education for him. Hopefully greater state funding will bring an injection of life with more pupils and more teachers, because there is enormous potential."
Of course, in Ireland there is rarely such a thing as education that is entirely free and most parents are used to putting their hands in their pockets for a wide range of activities.
The schools that have recently dropped tuition fees, Wilson's Hospital and Kilkenny College, have some eye-catching extra charges that have led some to question whether they are truly free.
Kilkenny College, for example, enjoys the benefits of being in the free scheme while still charging €2,750 for pupils who stay on until 10pm for meals, sport, afternoon activities and evening study. If they stay on until 6pm, they pay €1,900.
The equivalent charges for extras at Wilson's Hospital are €2,000 and €1,200. Wilson's Hospital principal Adrian Oughtan defends the extra charges. "If you are providing meals that is good value. It works out at €5 a day for meals.
"In other schools, children would be going out for something to eat at a local garage and it would be a much less healthy option. They might also be paying for after-school activities."
It is not just the recession that seems to be driving the trend towards abandoning ordinary tuition fees. Many of the schools have a strong religious ethos, whether Catholic or Protestant, and there is a new emphasis on making their education more widely available.
In its statement in recent days Gormanston College said: "The free education option would be more in line with the Franciscan ethos in the spirit of Pope Francis."
It would be wrong to suggest that all fee-charging schools will suddenly disappear. Some of the best-known institutions – including Blackrock College and Clongowes – maintain healthy numbers. Belvedere College is among the schools that are expanding.
Facing difficult choices, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn may have felt that he had little alternative to cutting funding to private schools. However, parents such as Barbara Broderick, whose son goes to Terenure College, argue that this has been counterproductive.
"With Gormanston College we are seeing what was inevitable. If you hit these schools, the taxpayer ends up paying the bill."
TOTTING UP THE SUMS
* There are currently 55 schools that charge fees. Second-level fee-charging schools receive funding from the State for one teacher for every 23 pupils.
* Up to a dozen of these colleges have been in discussion with the Department of Education about dropping fees. Since 2011, three schools have decided to join the free scheme.
* The number of pupils in private education dropped from 26,685 in 2008/2009 to 25,503 in 2012/2013.
* Fees for day pupils range from €2,250 a year to over €10,000.