It's easy to see why fee-paying schools are Labour bugbear
Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30
Fee-paying schools have always been a bugbear for Labour and it's easy to see why. Apart from being one of the most visible signs of an unequal society, they get about €95m a year from the taxpayers on top of what they receive from charging fees.
Quite how much discretionary money they have was detailed in a study published in 2013 by the Department of Education and Skills. It showed that they had about €80m extra once you discount for bad debts, capital loan repayments, reduced fees for families, grants forgone by not being in the free education scheme etc. That worked out at an average of €1.5m per school, ranging from €4m for the big schools to €300,000 for the smallest.
You can do a lot with that kind of money to advantage the already advantaged through extra teachers, smaller classes, more specialised options and greater facilities, including at least three golf courses. One is at the 150-acre St Columba's College which nestles on the foothills of the Dublin mountains. The school's Victorian and Georgian buildings are straight out of a Harry Potter set. It has a warden rather than a principal and if you have to enquire closely about the fees, you probably can't afford them anyway.
In the teeth of drastic cuts threatened in special needs and other necessary supports, it was little wonder Labour deputies were clamouring for slashing the fee-paying schools' 'subsidy' in the early cash-starved years of the Coalition. This subsidy is in the form of the State paying the salaries of the majority of teachers in these schools. The first Fine Gael-Labour budget in December 2011 saw their pupil teacher ratio go from 20:1 to 21:1.
The measure got through unscathed but the subsidy became a source of growing contention the following year, especially after the Labour Party's annual conference demanded an end to public funding of fee-paying schools. Such was the atmosphere at the Galway conference that it would have been a brave soul who raised any objection or pointed out that implementing the motion would save the exchequer little if anything. It would simply drive more schools into the free scheme, with the taxpayers still picking up the tab. It would also have a disproportionate impact on minority schools catering for scattered communities.
Shortly afterwards, an alarmed delegation from a small Protestant fee-paying school came into the Department of Education and Skills where I was working as special adviser to Minister Ruairi Quinn. I had to reassure them that the motion was not binding on the Government as a whole. I could have added that Fine Gael would not agree to it anyway. But Fine Gael became increasingly concerned, particularly when then Junior Minister Alan Kelly went on RTE's The Week in Politics and said the days of the State giving a subvention to private schools were "going to come to an end".
Enda Kenny's tough-minded chef de cabinet, Mark Kennelly, had a go at me over Kelly's comments, which gave the impression that a Government decision had been taken. It was obvious that Fine Gael ministers were never going to agree with Ruairi Quinn's proposal for a phased raising of the pupil teacher ratio in fee-paying schools to 24:1 in 2013, then to 27:1 the following year and to 30:1 in 2014.
Continuing uncertainty over their future funding prompted several schools to make enquiries about joining the free scheme. At one stage, there were a dozen schools either kicking the tyres to gauge the consequences of joining the scheme or involved in more serious negotiations. Eventually four did join. Many more would have if the Quinn proposals were agreed but that was not to be.
It's easy to dismiss Labour's approach to fee-paying schools as simply the politics of envy. But there is an intellectual underpinning through the work of fashionable French economist Thomas Piketty on the resurgence of inequality since the 1980s which fee-paying schools reflect and reinforce. Some Labour heavyweights also agree with the arguments in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's 'The Spirit Level - Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better'. Their Fine Gael counterparts take a different world view about wealth creators and individuals driving economic development which allows for social improvement. Coalitions survive on compromise and common sense.
Fine Gael eventually agreed to a further one-year worsening of the ratio to 23:1.
"But that's that. We won't wear another one," said Kennelly.
Fine Gael didn't and it won't in the future, much to the relief of the sector which has survived its toughest challenge yet.
John Walshe was special adviser to former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn