ONE of the country's best-known schools could face penalties over the level of its charges for pupils.
The Department of Education is involved in "ongoing engagement" with Rockwell College over its charges, a department spokesperson confirmed.
Rockwell, which has over 500 boarding and day pupils, is in the free education scheme, the rules of which do not allow schools to charge tuition fees or to "hide" them under another name.
However, there is some concern that the fees paid by boarders and the range of charges for day pupils at the Co Tipperary school are above approved limits.
Rockwell could face penalties if the current discussions do not resolve the department's concerns.
The Education Minister may withdraw state funding where a school is in breach of requirements.
At a time when a number of fee-paying schools are considering entering the free education scheme, charges are a particularly sensitive issue.
The department's circular on the free education scheme imposes a ceiling of €6,000 a year for five-day boarders and €7,800 a year for six- or seven-day boarders.
The purpose of the ceiling is to ensure that schools are not applying hidden fees over and above the true economic costs of providing boarding facilities.
Where a free education school proposes to charge in excess of the limit for boarding fees, it must prove that it relates exclusively to the service provided to boarders over and above those provided to day pupils and does not contain any element of a tuition fee.
"If a school cannot demonstrate that the boarding fee is exclusively related to the economic cost of the boarding service provided, the school must either comply with the limit or be re-categorised for funding purposes as a fee-charging school, resulting in the loss of all grants and teaching resources that are unavailable to fee paying schools," the circular warns.
In relation to day pupils, schools in the free scheme may seek a voluntary contribution but there is a "key requirement that a school does not operate a charge, in whatever form, that is in effect a mandatory fee".
Schools in the free education scheme may charge for meals and refreshments, provided pupils also have the option of bringing their own.
They may also charge for services and activities such as supervised after-school study, school tours, visits to the theatre and sporting events, and can request a "reasonable" payment for books or photocopied material.
Typically, among schools in the free education scheme, the voluntary contribution sought from parents ranges from €50 a year to €500.