ONE of the country's best-known schools, Gormanston College, is considering ending its fee-paying status and entering the free education scheme.
Confirmation of the move comes as the Department of Education revealed to the Irish Independent that 13 of the 55 private schools in the country are now in discussions about dropping tuition fees.
Gormanston College is a co-educational school in Co Meath, where fees run from €6,000-a-year for day pupils to €8,000- and €10,000-a-year for five and seven-day boarders.
The school has suffered heavy enrolment losses in recent years, with pupil numbers almost halving from 477 in 2008/2009 to 256 in 2012/13.
There has been ongoing speculation that Gormanston was among the schools that had approached the department to discuss its options.
And in a notice posted on the school website in recent days, Conor O'Brien, chairperson of the board of management, confirmed the dialogue with the department and said that "constructive" talks were under way.
He said the trustees of the college, which was established by the Franciscans in Co Meath in 1950s, were committed to ensuring a "viable future" for it.
Like many in the fee-paying sector, Gormanston has felt the pinch as the recession reversed the Celtic Tiger trend of increasing numbers of families sending their children to private schools.
Last month, Kilkenny College entered the free education scheme.
One of the benefits was that the school was able to retain teachers that would have been surplus under the fee-paying pupil-teacher ratio.
Private schools have been singled out for harsher treatment in recent Budgets, with the State now paying for one teacher for every 23 pupils, compared with a ratio of 1:19 in the free education sector.
It means either asking parents for more money or digging deeper into school funds to maintain services.
The double financial hit has put a lot of fee-paying schools under severe pressure and sparked the sudden surge in interest in exploring the free education alternative.
Schools in the free education scheme may not charge tuition fees, but may charge for other services such as accommodation and food for boarders, and meals and extra-curricular activities for day pupils.
They also qualify for state building grants, while fee-paying schools cover their own building costs.
Gormanston has also had to deal with some unfavourable publicity in recent years.
A Department of Education Whole School Evaluation report, arising from an inspection in 2009, raised a number of concerns, including inadequate tuition time, issues around management and communications with parents and staff.
A new principal, Dermot Lavin, wrote to parents setting out a series of changes that had taken place, and gave assurances that they were working toward becoming "an outstanding school".
In an end-of-term letter to parents, Mr Lavin noted Gormanston's improved academic performance.