ONE of the oldest schools in the country, Kilkenny College, will stop charging tuition fees from September.
The 764-pupil Protestant day and boarding school will change its status for the new school year, although boarders will continue to pay for accommodation, food and other services.
The co-educational school, which currently charges €4,148 a year for day-pupils and €9,680 for boarders, blames falling family incomes and cuts in State support for the decision.
Kilkenny College is one of about five fee-paying second-level schools – both Protestant and Catholic – that have been in discussions with the Department of Education about entering the free education scheme.
Currently, there are 55 fee-charging schools
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn welcomed the Kilkenny College announcement as a demonstration that "it sees the future of the college is best secured through participation in the free scheme".
His spokesperson said the minister and the Government were committed to supporting the provision of education by schools with a Protestant ethos in order to meet the needs of their communities.
The spokesperson said the department was open to having discussions on the issue with other fee-paying schools.
Protestant schools have been particularly hard hit by the mixture of state cuts and the squeeze on family incomes, as their pupils come from a wide socio-economic base.
Following the last Budget, the pupil-teacher ratio in fee-paying schools will rise to 23:1 from next September, compared with 19:1 for those in the free education scheme.
Kilkenny College principal Ian Coombes, pictured, said they were facing the loss of teachers under the most recent Budget cuts but "not if it will go in the oppose direction".
He described the new agreement with the Department of Education as "one of the most significant and positive developments" in the 500-year history of the school.
"Most significantly, our staff are retained to continue developing the broad curricular and extra-curricular range, while access for pupils will be greatly enhanced by the reduction in charges," he said.
Mr Coombes said the fees for boarders would reduce as a consequence of not charging for tuition.
Kilkenny College is highly regarded and the switch to the free education scheme will be welcomed by many parents in the area.
The college has seen enrolments fall by 50 since the cuts started in 2008 and Mr Coombes said they were taking in only about one-quarter of pupils from traditional Church of Ireland feeder primary schools.
Meanwhile, three primary schools are all to become fully co-educational from September 2014 in a shake-up of education in Co Wexford.
It means that pupils in CBS Primary School, The Mercy School and St John of God Primary School in Wexford town will no longer have to go to a 'feeder' school for the first years of their primary education, but instead will go directly to a co-educational school.