independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I was the principal of a State-funded school and even I can't back cuts to fee-paying ones

Any withdrawal of funding to fee-paying schools would force many of them to close

THE future funding of fee-paying schools has been a source of much argument over the past week. However, during the debate, a realistic view of our financial circumstances has been lacking.

Any debate that centres on the state subvention to fee-paying schools being withdrawn -- or even reduced -- needs to take heed of what exactly that would mean, not only for the state purse but for our school-going population as a whole.

Before being elected as a TD for Dun Laoghaire, I was a principal in a State-funded primary school. Every year, we were faced with the same situation where parents scrambled desperately to secure places for their children in local second-level schools.

For many parents, it was a case of exercising choice in terms of the type of education their children received: be that single-sex education or co-ed schooling; Catholic education or minority religious schooling; fee-paying schooling or the free, secondary sector.

In constituencies such as my own, historical educational decisions mean we now have a large number of fee-paying schools and very few State-funded ones.

This means that parents who wish to have their children educated locally have limited choices in terms of public school access.

Since the downturn, financial pressure has increased significantly on most families. Many people are now feeling the squeeze and are experiencing difficulty in meeting their monthly costs.

For many parents of children attending fee-paying schools who were once able to afford it, the cost of their children's education is now a serious burden.

However, the reality is that there are simply no other options available as the State-funded schools are over-subscribed.

The Department of Education and Skills reported in 2010 that the cost to the State of educating a child in a fee-paying school is about €4,500, almost half that of a public school at €8,000.

That is a significant saving to the State at a time when the Government is attempting to maximise resources and close the budget deficit.

This is not the time to have an ideological debate that would result in exorbitant additional costs to the State.

Fee-paying schools also have a valid place in Irish society where religious ethos is concerned. There are currently 56 fee-paying schools in Ireland, 22 of which have a Protestant ethos.

Since the 1960s, these schools have been recognised separately from other fee-charging institutions as they enable families to educate their children in the school of their choice, according to their religious beliefs.

This cannot be ignored.

It must also be acknowledged that the pupil-teacher ratio in fee-paying schools has been increased to 21:1 -- where State-funded schools stand at 19:1 -- in a bid to maximise resources.

Taxpayers' money, where fee-paying schools are concerned, is used only to pay teachers' salaries. They do not receive capitation grants, ICT grants or money to pay for building costs or the day-to-day running of the school; the cost of which is borne by the parents, who are themselves taxpayers.

If a debate is needed on future funding, it needs to happen once we have regained our economic sovereignty and are in a more financially stable place.

In the meantime, any talk of funding being withdrawn, which would lead to the subsequent closure of these schools, begs the question as to where the children attending will be educated?

The answer is that responsibility would fall to the Government, who would be forced to either buy over the premises or to build more schools. At this point in time, neither are realistically affordable options.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is a Fine Gael TD for Dun Laoghaire

Irish Independent

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