THE number of fee-paying schools considering entering the free education scheme has doubled in recent weeks.
The Department of Education is now dealing with inquiries from eight of the 54 schools remaining in the fee-paying sector after Kilkenny College decided to exit.
The flood of interest follows the announcement by the college that it will stop charging tuition fees from September, following an agreement with the department.
Many fee-paying schools are feeling the financial pinch and those that are struggling may find that they are better off in the free scheme.
In the current economic climate, fee-paying schools are under pressure on two fronts – falling pupil numbers and reduced state support in the form of teachers' salaries.
Protestant schools have been particularly hard hit, as their pupils come from a wide socioeconomic base. The inquires made to the department have been from Protestant and Catholic schools, and also include day and boarding establishments.
Arising from the last Budget, the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) in fee-paying schools will rise to 23:1 from next September, compared with 19:1 for those in the free education scheme.
Further cuts in the pupil-teacher ratio in the fee-paying sector are likely as the department seeks ongoing savings.
A recent departmental report found that fee-paying schools have an average €1.5m discretionary income at any one time.
However, there are wide variations, with the wealthiest school enjoying a bank balance of €4.7m while the least well off had reserves of €112,000.
In total, the sector enjoys an €81m revenue boost over and above that available to similarly sized schools in the free education scheme, which don't charge tuition fees.
The debate for a fee-paying school is whether it stands to gain more from charging tuition fees than what it would receive in state support if it entered the scheme.
While free education schools cannot charge tuition fees, they benefit from a range of grants – such as for building and running costs – not paid to fee-paying schools, as well as the better pupil-teacher ratio.
The State pays about €96m a year in subvention to fee-paying schools, mainly in the form of teachers' salaries, and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is under pressure from within the Labour ranks to end that.
He said he does not want to close fee-paying schools, but is open to more of them coming into the free system. He said he wanted to give parents choice but that there was also a need for equity and fairness.
The department has said it would cost the State €23m a year if all fee-paying schools came into the free scheme.