Pupils quit fee-paying sector as parents cannot afford cost
SCHOOL pupils are beginning to desert the fee-paying sector as their parents can no longer afford the costs.
School managers claim students are already migrating "in numbers" to schools in the free education scheme.
New figures show total enrolments in fee-paying schools dropped slightly -- by 300 -- last year but this year's decline is believed to be much steeper.
And the managers warned that cuts in state support for these schools would inevitably result in closures. This would force the State to provide for these students in the "free education scheme" at an even greater cost, said the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) for secondary schools.
The fee-paying secondary school sector expanded rapidly in the Celtic Tiger years when fees rose steadily. However, an Irish Independent investigation has revealed that half of the country's fee-paying schools have 'frozen' their fees this year.
But parents continue to pay more than €130m to the sector, which has around 26,000 pupils, or one in 10 of second-level schoolgoers.
The most expensive day school in the country is St Columba's, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, which has kept its fees at €12,750; the most expensive boarding school is also in Dublin -- Sutton Park, which reduced its fees from €25,000 last year to €22,900 this year.
Both schools experienced a drop in enrolments last year as families struggled to pay fees.
There were predictions last night that fee-paying schools could become more elitist.
"They will become like the Etons of the UK because they will have to put up their fees as their pupil numbers drop," said Eleanor Petrie of the National Parents Council (post-primary).
"It is tough to think you are going to have to find this money for schools for six years. It is not a one-year commitment. That makes it a doubly difficult situation for parents to decide whether they can actually see that far ahead."
Last year, the pupil-teacher ratio was increased for all second-level schools by the Government but the fee-paying sector was hit much harder than schools in the free education scheme. The JMB said this unprecedented decision represented a form of discrimination between children in one type of voluntary secondary school as against another.
"Dismissing the fee-paying secondary sector as elitist represents a lazy form of judgment. Fee-paying schools, a long-standing example of Public-Private Partnership, provide diversity and are a net contributor to the economy," it said.
Many schools have been forced to come to the rescue of parents who are struggling.
"People have lost their jobs. We have one or two people who are in the building trade so they would be in trouble. So, of course, we would accommodate people, we don't bundle the student out of the school," said Oliver Murphy, principal of Castleknock College, which "reluctantly" put up its fees this year.
Arthur Godsil, principal of St Andrew's College in Dublin, said it also operated a bursary system to help out parents who had fallen on hard times. The Booterstown school raised fees by a small amount this year.
"There is no complacency there. Obviously the problems are going to continue in the country for a while."
Seamus Finnegan, the deputy headmaster of Belvedere College in Dublin, said that "a number of our parents have indicated that they are finding it more difficult to pay fees."