Monday 24 July 2017

In My Opinion: Time for fee-charging schools to take another look at their policies

Dr Gerry Jeffers

The fee-charging schools debate is a complex, multi-faceted one. History is important. Many schools, particularly those founded in the 19th Century, originated in more obviously socially stratified times. For Catherine McAuley, Edmund Rice and Nano Nagle, their focus in starting the Presentation Sisters, the Christian Brothers and the Mercy Sisters was on schools for poor children.

In contrast, the Jesuits, the Spiritans (formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers) and the Loreto Sisters became associated with an upper-middle-class clientele.

Linked to these trends were widespread disparaging attitudes to manual and practical education, while so called 'academic' education carried prestige. Thus, the initial development of the Vocational Education system was seen primarily as preparing young people for employment in trades, manufacturing or agriculture.

Arguably, the introduction of 'free' education in 1967 changed all that. Effectively, that policy decision indicated that the State was acknowledging each young person's right to post-primary schooling and attempting to provide a fairer framework for all children, irrespective of social background.

The decisions by a small number of schools not to enter the 'free-education' scheme is an important context. Especially relevant was the policy decision to provide separate funding arrangements to ensure that children from Protestant families could attend schools that respected their religious ethos.

The majority of Catholic schools opted to join the 'free' scheme, with less than 10pc continuing to charge fees.

Geography is also important. Fee-charging schools are concentrated in Dublin, where 18pc of young people attend such schools. But if you differentiate between northside and southside, the southside enrolment figure jumps to 27pc. Many are clustered in Dublin's south-eastern region.

Thus, fee-charging schooling tends to be 'normalised' in a way that is different to anywhere else in the country.

Within Dublin, Catholic religious congregations are strongly identified with the fee-charging sector. This reality sits uncomfortably with a view of a church committed to advancing social justice.

Perhaps the time has come for those schools to revisit their 1967 decisions.

The wisdom of having the children of so many significant policy and opinion-makers attend elite institutions has consequences for all of society; for example, such families are sheltered from the realities of how an under-funded system impacts on learning.

Decisions within the Catholic Church in Dublin, and within individual congregations, to alter the status of fee-charging schools would not only be more consistent with the church's own teachings, but has the potential to contribute to fairer and better education for all.

Dr Gerry Jeffers is a lecturer in the Education Department, NUI Maynooth

Irish Independent

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