Tuesday 15 October 2019

Enrolments on rise as country's fee-paying schools begin to enjoy the fruits of recovery

Enrolments are up for the second year in a row – after a decline caused by the financial crash in 2008. (Stock photo)
Enrolments are up for the second year in a row – after a decline caused by the financial crash in 2008. (Stock photo)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Pupil numbers in fee-paying schools are on the rise again as family finances steady and recover in the post-recession era.

Enrolments are up for the second year in a row - after a decline caused by the financial crash in 2008. While not all are seeing extra demand for places, a turnaround is evident with three in five of the 51 schools in the sector growing their pupil numbers.

Many schools have also introduced fee rises this year, and, in most cases annual day fees are in €4,000-€7,000 range. However, fees vary widely with parents paying anywhere between €2,600 and €12,646 this year for a day pupil at these elite schools.

A number of schools offer both a day pupil rate and a higher day boarder rate, the latter covering options such as supervised evening study and evening meal.

Read more: What the charges at fee-paying schools may not cover

For instance, in St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Dublin - currently the most expensive day school in the country - there is an annual fee of €12,426 for day pupils, who go home at 5.30pm, while the charge for day boarders is €14,832.

In another example, at Villiers School, Limerick, the day pupil rate is €3,520, while the day boarder rate ranges from €4,120 to €5,020, depending on the options taken.

It is common practice for schools to offer discounts where siblings are attending at the same time.

The harsh economic climate post-2008 caused a state of flux in the fee-paying sector, with schools hit by a combination of crashing family finances, as well as cuts in Government supports. The financial squeeze and the ongoing uncertainty led to some schools making the radical decision to give up their private status and enter the free education scheme, reducing the overall number from 55 to 51.

In 2014, Gormanston College, Co Meath; Newtown School, Waterford; and St Patrick's Cathedral School, Dublin, entered the free scheme.

A year previously, Kilkenny College, Kilkenny did the same, following Wilson's Hospital School, Co Westmeath in 2011. Against that trend, Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, went into the fee-paying sector in 2014 after a long-running dispute with the Department of Education over the level of contribution sought from parents while in the free education scheme.

Read more: Case study: 'People have started to think about boarding school again'

The growth in enrolments in the fee-paying schools was a feature of the Celtic Tiger era, as increasing numbers of parents sought to buy advantage for their children. Enrolments peaked in September 2008, with 26,685 pupils in the 55 fee-paying schools at the time, but by the end of that month, the full scale of the economic disaster began to unfold and the narrative changed dramatically.

The scale of the crash left many families struggling to keep children in these schools, and many turned to grandparents and credit unions for support, while some were forced to abandon the aspiration of private education completely.

At the height of the austerity era, the sector was also targeted for a series of cuts in government support, which in turn led to a further squeeze on their finances.

From a state funding point of view, the difference between fee-paying schools and those in the free education scheme is that the former do not receive State grants for day-to-day running costs, or for building works.

But the Department of Education does foot the bill for the overwhelming number of their teachers - to the tune of about €90m a year.

Between 2011 and 2013, the then Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn reduced this support.

The State now pays for one teacher for every 23 pupils in schools that charge fees, compared with one teacher for 19 pupils for schools in the free education scheme.

The worsening of the State-funded pupil-teacher ratio means fee-paying schools have to dig deeper into their own resources, and/or increase fees, to pay teachers privately if they want to maintain advantageous staffing levels that they use as a selling point to parents.

Read more: Social networks are at the heart of parents' decisions to send children to private schools

Having more teachers allows them to offer smaller classes and maximum subject choice for students. The net reduction in the number of fee-paying schools from 55 to 51 stripped cohorts of pupils from the sector, so overall numbers may never recover to the peaks of 2008/09.

However, the steadying of both the State and family finances has brought stability and signs of new growth to the sector,

Among 50 schools that were fee-paying in 2008/09 (the group does not include Rockwell College, which was then in the free education scheme but is now fee-paying ) and that are still fee-paying, there has been a turnaround in pupil numbers in the past two years, according to Department of Education figures.

Enrolments in those 50 schools stood at 24,192 in 2008/09 but dropped to below 23,900 in both 2011/12 and 2012/13.

However, they grew again to 23,983 in 2013/14 and 24,112 in 2014/15 as family finances steadied and recovered in the post-recession era.

Additional reporting by Ciara Treacy

Irish Independent

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