Private schools have an obligation they don't always meet
Most of the fee-paying secondary schools in this country have a Christian value base. The Catholic schools are mostly run by religious congregations while the Protestant schools are also faith based.
So why are the main churches involved in elite schools that reinforce and amplify social inequalities when their religious mission is really about promoting social justice for the poor, especially in a society that is becoming more unequal by the day?
Public discussion about these schools is usually in the context of their 'success' in sending students to college and in particular to so-called prestige courses. Three-out-of-four medical and dental students come from professional, managerial or employer backgrounds, as do more than half the students studying law or veterinary medicine. We can take it for granted that many of these students attended fee-paying schools.
Yet, until now there has been little questioning of how supporting the existing social order fits with the call by Pope Francis to all Christians to fight against "an economy that kills" and to address "the structural causes of inequality".
The Pope was Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in his native Argentina. His words therefore have particular meaning for the Jesuits in Ireland who run three of the best fee-paying schools in the country - Clongowes Wood, situated around a refurbished medieval castle on over 500 acres in Co Kildare; Gonzaga College in Dublin's leafy suburbia; and Belvedere College in the city centre. In addition they run Limerick's Crescent College, which used to be fee paying, and Coláiste Iognáid in Galway City which is also in the Free Education scheme.
The glimmerings of a real debate are, however, seen in a thoughtful contribution by Brian Flannery, a former teacher in Belvedere who now works with the Jesuits' education office. In the latest issue of 'Working Notes' published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (www.working notes.ie), he asks how in their school structures and policies in Ireland the society is helping to alleviate the suffering of poorer communities.
"For many, fee-paying schools equate with elitism and are at odds with the Christian values that these same schools endeavour to espouse. The charge is that fee-paying schools confer further advantage on those who already enjoy a considerable amount of privilege in our society."
He adds that there is a tension between "serving the most privileged and the call for the congregation's schools to be institutions that champion the cause of people who are living in poverty".
The article will be of particular interest to one of Clongowes' former pupils - Richard Bruton, who is the first Fine Gael minister to hold the education portfolio since Paddy Cooney 30 years ago, a past pupil of another fee-paying school, Castleknock College. The party, which has always been a supporter of the sector, was very uneasy with the decision to worsen the pupil-teacher ratio in fee-paying schools taken by former coalition minister Ruairí Quinn when he was minister for education and skills.
A study commissioned by Mr Quinn showed that the fee-paying schools had more than €80m extra a year to invest in additional support and facilities for their pupils, thanks to the income from fees. This money was on top of the taxpayers' subsidy of €80m through the payment of teachers' salaries. He defended his decision to hit the sector on the basis that fee-paying schools were in a position to take a greater share of cuts than other sectors. This caused tensions within the coalition at the time. It was one of the reasons why a handful of schools joined the Free Education Scheme and explained why, at one stage, a dozen others were kicking the tyres to see what doing so would mean for them.
They took heart from a promise in the Fine Gael general election manifesto last year which read that "there will be no further discrimination in taxpayer support for fee-charging schools", which was a direct rebuke to its Labour colleagues in government at the time. The reality now is that no government is likely to take any further action against them for the foreseeable future.
The only change that could come about is one internally generated following rigorous questioning of the churches' involvement in the fee-paying sector. Mr Flannery asks a number of hard questions such as "do our schools reinforce structural inequalities across wider society, who is being served and what values are ultimately transmitted?"
But he deftly defends the same schools by arguing that part of the problem is that society measures the success of a school by its academic results. Jesuit schools want to nurture critical thinkers "who understand that with privilege comes responsibility", he says.
The Jesuits hope that their students become men and women for others, and that their education puts them at the service of the world.
"We need to evaluate whether or not we are creating leaders of positive change - and if not, why not?" he writes.
Mr Flannery used to sport a fine beard and taught religion in Belvedere, thus earning the nickname Moses.
He may not lead the congregations out of the fee-paying sector, but he might get them to acknowledge that their involvement in fee-paying schools creates its own tensions and that there is a greater need than ever to challenge and respond to injustice in society.
Perhaps more important is that the students realise their privileged position as well.