THREE Protestant schools have approached the Department of Education about changing their fee-paying status, the Irish Independent has learned.
The move has been forced by cuts in state support for the country's 55 fee-paying schools, expected to continue in December's Budget.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is likely to further reduce the number of teachers the State funds in fee-paying schools, currently costing almost €90m a year in salaries.
Critics of the cuts say they will drive more pupils out of fee-paying schools and ultimately cost the State more to support them in 'free education'.
Protestant fee-paying schools have been particularly badly hit by the cuts because their pupils are drawn from a wider socio-economic base than a typical Catholic fee-paying school.
Three schools are involved in exploratory talks with the department that could see them enter the free education scheme, which means they would no longer charge for tuition.
However, they could charge for other services such as meals and supervised study and, in the case of boarders, accommodation. They would operate along the lines of a model introduced in Wilson's Hospital School, Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath, a year ago.
Being in the free education scheme would mean the department would pay the €518 per pupil to cover day-to-day running costs and caretaker and secretarial services.
They would also have their building costs covered by the department instead of paying for them themselves.
While the State is committed to protecting minority ethos schools, it is also legally constrained from discriminating in their favour. This means it cannot exclude them from cuts.
Protestant schools are predominantly boarding schools as they provide an education in their minority religious ethos for families scattered over a wide geographic region.
There are no Protestant schools in 13 of the 26 counties, demonstrating the lengths many pupils have to travel to get their education of choice.
Many of the pupils come from families that are not well-off, and 30pc of Protestant parents receive financial help in sending their children to school.
Chris Woods, principal of Wesley College, Dublin, said research done by the Protestant schools showed that 15pc of pupils were from households where the income was less than €40,000 a year, while in 5pc of cases the income was below €20,000.
The effects of the economic crash on family income, combined with cuts in state support for fee-paying schools, has left many Protestant schools struggling to the point that three are now exploring their options for change.
The department would not confirm that discussions are ongoing with three schools about entering the free education scheme.
A spokesman would only say: "We will not be commenting on any meetings which may or may not have taken place."