Monday 23 April 2018

We must ensure educational opportunities for all children

Fee-paying schools are often wrongly blamed for societal ills, writes Gerry Foley, principal at Belvedere College, Dublin

High achievers: Belvedere College students celebrate with the Leinster Schools Senior Cup following their victory over Cistercian College Roscrea last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
High achievers: Belvedere College students celebrate with the Leinster Schools Senior Cup following their victory over Cistercian College Roscrea last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

The publication of secondary school league tables usually engenders negative commentaries, which take aim at particular types of schools. Gaelscoileanna, fee-paying schools, or schools of a particular denomination are accused of being "private", "elitist" or "selective", and they are pitted against "public" state-funded schools.

The parents of students in fee-charging schools such as Belvedere College SJ are portrayed as rich, privileged and selfish in their choice of school. The reality is, however, that the parent profile in Belvedere is not very different, in terms of occupation and wealth, from that in many non-fee and voluntary sector schools. They are civil servants, teachers, taxi drivers, middle-income taxpayers - all of whom make significant sacrifices to pay fees. They are not some mysterious 'elite'.

The fees they pay go into paying the salaries of a significant number of staff because, unlike non-fee schools, not all staff are state funded. All building and running costs are also paid from fees.

Parents of students in fee-paying schools are not the only ones who invest significantly in their children's education, as many mothers and fathers in Ireland well know. The JMB (Joint Managerial Body) states that up to 30pc of the running costs of voluntary secondary schools are paid for by parental contributions and school fundraising. Many parents across the country pay for additional tuition, courses in the Gaeltacht, foreign exchanges, revision courses, and a myriad of other educational experiences. Yet they are not blamed for the inequalities of society or portrayed as an elite, privileged group.

It sometimes seems like accepted wisdom that fee-paying schools are to blame for many of our societal ills, in spite of the fact that less than 6pc of the total school population attend fee-paying schools. Sadly, what is not addressed in public discourse is the effort schools make to nurture students from every socio-economic background, helping them to become responsible citizens with a social conscience.

In an article in the Irish Independent on January 7 last, the Jesuit delegate for education, Brian Flannery, raised an important and challenging question regarding the role of fee-paying schools in a unequal society. It is a question we take very seriously.

Belvedere College SJ has a Social Diversity Programme, now in place over 25 years, and 10pc of our students come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds - almost all complete secondary school and progress to third level.

Our students engage in an extensive social justice programme. They have a Soup Run for homeless people in the city centre, and students in the school's St Vincent de Paul society visit local elderly people weekly. Other students teach English to refugees and give peer tutoring in local primary schools. They also support the Belvedere Youth Club after-school activities in nearby Buckingham Street. Students accompany the sick on pilgrimages to Lourdes and recently raised €30,000 for charity on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. With the ever-generous support of the Irish people our annual Sleep Out on O'Connell Street raised €225,000 at Christmas for the homeless. The annual Block Pull, where students and staff walk to Galway, raises funds circa €60,000 for Temple Street, guide dogs and a hospice. Immersion programmes in Kolkata and Zambia help students develop a commitment to development education.

All of this is not just paternalistic giving. As Brian Flannery also notes: "The Jesuits hope that their students become men and women for others… at the service of the world." Many past pupils have been agents for change in society, and it is wrong to assume that they are any less committed to a more socially just society simply because their parents chose what they believed was the best school for their child.

As part of the school curriculum students can take part in the choir, orchestra, drama, sports, debating and a host of extracurricular activities, such as the Urban Eco Farm thriving on the college roof.

This should be the norm in terms of state provision of education for all schools. Criticising parents who invest in making that provision possible diverts us from the real challenge of creating cultural change, raising expectations and harnessing cross-community support so this type of education is available to all our young people.

We need a strategically-managed approach which should include both serious investment in early childhood education and family support. It should also include support from corporate industry, as it is in the interest of this sector to create a well-educated workforce.

School self-evaluation and inspection reports are far more informative than the league tables, which are often quoted when accusing fee-paying schools of being academically selective. Consider, for example, that 19pc of the Leaving Certificate class of 2016 in Belvedere had special needs, yet the league tables did not register this. Nor did they account for almost 10pc of the class who took a gap year before university, or for the students who have taken up apprenticeships, joined the Army Cadets, or gone to study at universities abroad.

Studies by the ESRI show that schools which could be judged to be more successful, be they public or private, share some common features. They are communities with shared beliefs or values with high expectations and a positive atmosphere. In terms of academic achievement, highly effective schools tend to be more flexible in relation to subject choice, often delaying the choice of subject level so that more pupils can take higher-level subjects. Such schools also tend to have lower levels of misbehaviour, apparently, a consequence of consistent approach to school discipline.

So, our focus should be on how best to realise the potential of students. And we should be helping schools to work together rather than pitting schools and parents against each other. This only creates a negative, divisive and unproductive culture. More importantly it ignores the fact that we do not help disadvantaged students by preventing parents from investing in their children's education. And so we must work to ensure that resources, education opportunities, and the chance to grow in civic responsibility are made available to all of the country's children, beginning at early childhood.

Gerry Foley is headmaster at Belvedere College, Dublin 1

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