EDUCATION Minister Mary Hanafin was under attack last night after she gave the go-ahead to a fee-paying school in her constituency to draw up plans for a new building - at a cost to the taxpayer of at least ?3m.
The plan for the 560-pupil CBC Monkstown, with fees of ?2,370 a year, represents the biggest single building project in the fee-paying sector to receive an assurance of State funds.
It is one of five fee-paying schools among a total of 51 in the post-primary sector - and 73 at primary level - authorised to progress through the architectural planning process by Ms Hanafin.
A spokesperson for the minister, a TD for Dun Laoghaire, said building grant-aid for fee-paying schools was limited to about 50pc of the costs and account was taken of individual circumstances.
Since 1999, they had received only ?14.5m of a total of ?935m budget.
Five years ago, a report recommended the rebuilding of CBC Monkstown, which dates back to 1843, rather than refurbishment and the cost, then, was put at about ?6m.
Fine Gael education spokesperson Olwyn Enright said schools that charged a fee for entry should not receive money for day-to-day expenses, or refurbishment and building costs and called on the minister explain the decision.
It signalled moves towards greater State support for fee-paying schools, which was not justifiable given the number of free-education schools that were desperately in need of repair, expansion and refurbishment
Labour education spokesperson Jan O'Sullivan said it raised issues around the extent to which the state should provide capital funding for such schools.
"The minister needs to develop a clear policy position so that the ability of a school to contribute to the cost, by way of the fees it charges, is taken into account where public funds are being expended."
Jim Dorney, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), said they were concerned that fee-paying schools were prioritised for State investment along with those from the Free Education System.
"Income from students gives fee-paying schools an unfair advantage over schools in the Free Education Scheme.
"Many students cannot afford to attend fee-paying schools, and this equates to a restrictive entrance policy, on financial grounds."
Other fee-paying schools, approved for extensions, were St Andrew's, Blackrock, also in the minister's constituency, St Patrick's Cathedral GS, Dublin, Scoil Mhuire, Wellington Road, Cork and Drogheda Grammar School.
The minister's native county of Tipperary also fared well, with five entries at second-level, the highest number for any county after Dublin's 10.
Ms O'Sullivan also criticised the "piecemeal" way in which the minister was announcing the school building programme.
"The 124 schools do not know the likely timescale of their progress and those disappointed at not being included have no idea if or when they can expect another announcement later in the year".
Irish National Teachers Organisation (NTO) general secretary John Carr said that the announcement only served to prove that getting through the school building programme was like running a marathon through a maze.
"Most of these schools were at the architectural planning stage last year. Indeed 40pc of the schools were at an advanced stage last year.
"Many were announced as being in architectural planning in 2003 and indeed in 2002."
The INTO is also demanding the return to the publication of full and complete information on the school building programme, which gave a "full picture" and provided a "level of transparency and openness that announcements by press release do not".