Saturday 23 March 2019

€120,000 question for parents: is the cost of a private school worth it?

Despite the cost of private education, and the fact that many public school pupils fare just as well, demand has been growing, writes Louise McBride

Not all parents can afford the luxury of being able to send their child to a fee-paying schools - but their popularity is rising. Stock picture
Not all parents can afford the luxury of being able to send their child to a fee-paying schools - but their popularity is rising. Stock picture
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

The cost of sending a child to private school for their entire secondary education could be as much as €120,000 - yet, despite this, more parents are willing to foot the bill for private education. A number of private schools saw an increase in pupil numbers last September, with the recent economic boom appearing to have pushed up demand for private education - as parents have more money in their pockets to cover such bills. There has also been a pick-up in interest from international students in Irish private schools.

Are private schools worth the money though? Fees for such schools vary widely. Full-time boarding fees could be €19,000 a year or more. Day fees at private schools in Dublin could be €6,000 a year or more.

For a parent mulling over whether or not to pay for private education for a child, one of the key considerations is whether they'll improve their child's prospects in education, career, and life by doing so. This isn't an easy question to answer.

A high percentage of pupils in private schools typically go on to third-level education - but this is equally true of many public schools. There are plenty of public and private schools where 100pc of pupils have gone on to third-level education, according to the school league tables published by the Sunday Independent earlier this year. In some public schools, the percentage of pupils who go to college is higher than it is in some private schools. The inverse is also true.

School league tables have their limitations - and are just one way to judge the merits of a school. Parents considering a private school should check the track record of the school - as well as the advantages it may offer to their children.

Private school pros

Class sizes in private schools are often smaller than those in public schools. Smaller classes are usually seen as beneficial because they allow teachers to focus more on the needs of individual students, according to a report published by the OECD in late 2018.

The Department of Education and Skills does not have figures on average class sizes in secondary schools. However, there should be no more than 30 pupils in classes in secondary school, with a maximum limit of 24 for a number of subjects - such as art, agricultural science, music and construction studies, according to the policy of the teacher's union, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI).

Class sizes in private schools are often lower than 24 or 30. For example, the average class size for Leaving Cert students in St Columba's College in Dublin 16 is around 10. "There could be five pupils in a Leaving Certificate music or Latin class," said Amanda Morris, admissions officer with St Columba's. "Compulsory classes such as English or maths will usually be larger, perhaps 15." The average class size for Leaving Cert students in The King's Hospital in Dublin 20 is 17 - with that number dropping to 15 for optional subjects such as chemistry, physics, agricultural science and applied maths, according to Sile Jio, marketing and admissions manager for the school.

"It would be naive to think there are not advantages to private schools," said Michael O'Leary, an education expert who holds the Prometric Chair in Assessment at Dublin City University (DCU). "Private school fees can be used to pay for extra teachers - in order to reduce class sizes. Fees can be used to pay for specialist teachers. Private schools can often fundraise a little easier. They tend to have a better range of extra-curricular activities. They tend to provide opportunities outside of the basic curriculum."

King's Hospital for example has a 25m indoor pool, two astro pitches, and sports facilities for cricket and indoor rowing. At the weekends, pupils can partake in film studies and performance art, as well as computer animation, robotics and app development. Eleven musical instruments are currently being taught at the school.

Children attending private schools will also often come from a similar background - though this is not necessarily an advantage. "When you go into the workplace, not everyone has a similar background," said O'Leary.

"It can be an advantage to have a schooling where you meet all different kinds of people. Furthermore, it's not always well-off people who send their children to private schools. Some people don't have a choice of public schools in their area - the private school may be their only choice."

Boarding schools

Some private schools offer boarding, such as day boarding (where pupils typically get evening meals and supervised study until late in the evening) or five- or seven-day boarding (where children stay overnight). There are pros and cons to boarding school.

"Most of our five-day boarders are from a 30km catchment area - such as Meath, Kildare and Laois, with seven-day boarders coming from Mayo, Clare, Galway, Cork, Limerick and the south-east, and north Dublin," said Jio. "[With boarding], parents don't have to drive distances in the evening bringing children to activities and rushing mealtimes. There's no stressful commuting in the morning and evenings for parents or children."

Some children however may find it difficult to settle in a boarding school. Also, boarding schools are often far away from home and so parents may not be nearby if there's an emergency.

Boarding schools are also usually expensive. You could face fees of as much as €23,481 to send a child to a boarding school for a year for full board. Day pupil fees (where pupils typically attend school during the day and leave by evening) could cost up to €8,241 a year - though day boarding could cost more than €10,000 a year. For example, St Columba's College charges €10,926 a year for day boarders, while its day pupil fees are €8,241 a year. Full-board fees come to €23,481 a year for those studying for the Leaving Cert at St Columba's; €19,563 a year for those studying for the Junior Cert.

Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare charges €19,890 a year for full board - though fees are higher for students entering in fifth year.

Seven-day boarding at The King's Hospital costs €16,795 a year though annual fees for students from outside Ireland are either €20,154 or €20,994. Five-day boarding at King's Hospital is €14,890 a year; day fees come to €7,190 a year.

So, you could face a bill of €120,000 or more to send your child to boarding school for six years - depending on the school. Should you wish to pay for day fees only, the bill could be €45,000 or more for six years. These are large bills and should not be taken on lightly, particularly if you don't have a lump sum in the wings to cover them.

Family matters

There are a myriad of factors which can influence a child's education performance - as well as future career and life prospects. It's not just down to their school. Family usually has a big influence - as can how well-educated, or not, a child's parents are. Even something as simple as reading matters. A recent international study found that the number of books in a family home can have as strong an influence on a child's academic performance as how educated that child's parents are. "There are really brilliant public schools - and then there are some which aren't so good," said O'Leary. "The same is true of private schools. The question really is if the children who attend private schools do better in life than children from similar families who go to public school. You will probably find that there's no difference in how children from similar families get on in life. The school is only a proxy for all the things that the children of such families enjoy."

How to save for private school

Saving for a €120,000 bill

Let’s say you want to send your child to boarding school for six years — and you expect the bill for that to come to €120,000. You’d need to save €1,949.63 a month over the next five years to hit a target of €120,000 if you’re saving into a product which only makes interest — or an investment return — of 1pc a year, according to Colin Davis, financial planning advisor with Curran Financial Services in Galway. You’d need to save €1,851.61 a month over the next five years if your product makes an investment return of 3pc a year, added Davis.

Let’s say you have 10 years to save up the €120,000, however. In that case, you’d need to save €950.46 a month over 10 years to hit your target — if you’re saving into a product which delivers interest or an investment return of 1pc a year, according to Davis. The amount you would need to save each month would fall to €856.59 over 10 years if your investment product delivers a return of 3pc a year, according to Davis.  However, if your investment product was earning a handsome return of 6pc a year, you’d only need to save €728.60 a month. “The shorter the time to save, the more cautious you need to be about where you put your money,” said Davis. “This is because the assets that tend to give the best returns — namely stocks and shares — can be very volatile over the short-term and it would not do to risk this money unnecessarily. If you have only five years to save, you can’t afford any risk.”

Saving for a €45,000 bill

Let’s say you plan to send your child to private school on a daytime basis — and you expect the total bill for six years to come to €45,000. Should you only have five years to hit that savings target, you’d need to save €731.11 a month — assuming you’re saving into a product which earns 1pc interest a year, according to Davis. Should the product make a return of 3pc a year, you’d need to save €641.77 a month over the next five years.

However, if you have 10 years to save up the €45,000, you’d need to save €356.42 a month to hit your target — if earning interest or an investment return of 1pc, according to Davis. This amount falls to €321.22 a month over the next 10 years if you’re making a return of 3pc.

A regular saver account is probably your only option if you have five years to save for your child’s education. For those with 10 years to save up for private school fees, Davis recommends investing in a Dimensional World Allocation fund through a good Zurich Life savings plan.

Borrowing for private school fees

Borrowing the money to fund your child’s private school will be more expensive than saving it. For example, it will cost at least €7,000, and as much as €12,367, in interest to borrow €45,000 over five years through a personal loan from an Irish bank. The cheapest lenders for a five-year personal loan of €45,000 are Avantcard (as long as you have an excellent credit rate), KBC (as long as you have a current account with the bank) and Bank of Ireland. It costs at least €7,073 in interest to borrow €45,000 from Avantcard over five years; and at least €7,362 to borrow it from KBC. It costs €7,909 to borrow €45,000 from Bank of Ireland over five years, €10,350 from AIB and €12,367 from Permanent TSB.

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