The minister is under pressure from within Labour to end the State subsidy to such schools, writes Philip Ryan
THREE senior Labour ministers, have sent their children to fee-paying schools it has emerged as private schools faced losing their annual €96m subsidy.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton have all sent their children to private schools that receive State grants along with expensive tuition fees. On top of State funding, the country's 56 fee-paying schools take in more than €120m in tuition fees annually
However, ASTI president Pat King claimed last week that ending grants for State-run schools would cost the Government an extra €30-€40m a year.
According to previous reports, non-fee paying pupils cost the State €8,000 a year, while fee-paying pupils cost the Government €4,500.
It has been argued that private schools actually save the State €91m by covering the €3,500 deficit needed to educate the 26,000 students in fee-paying institutions
Blackrock College and its junior school, Willow Park School, have a combined tuition income of €7.4m.
Mr Quinn attended the south Dublin college, which also received more than €3m in grants last year.
Blackrock's alumni includes Nama developer Derek Quinlan and former DCC boss Jim Flavin.
Mr Quinn's son Malachi, who runs the public-relations company MQ2 Communications, followed in his father's footsteps and also attended the college, where annual fees are around €6,000 for day students.
The minister's youngest son Conan recently won the senior All-Ireland Debating Championship, representing the exclusive St Conleth's College in Ballsbridge, which received €873,181 from the State last year.
Mr Rabbitte has previously stated that he sent his daughters to both public and private schools, while Ms Burton said she sent her daughter to a fee-paying school. The news will add to the controversy that was sparked by Labour junior minister Alan Kelly, who last week publicly called for an end to the State grants for private schools.
He said: "The day of being able to give €96m-100m for private schools is something that is going to come to an end. I think this funding is a luxury, rather than a necessity."
Mr Kelly's view echoed a motion passed at the Labour Party conference in April, calling for "an end to the €90m public subsidy of private schools".
However, Mr Quinn, who is tasked with finding €77m of savings in the Department of Education and Skills, looked to distance himself from the junior minister's comments last Thursday during an interview on Dublin City University radio.
He said: "Well, he (Alan Kelly) expressed an opinion. He's not around the cabinet table. I am. I don't think it's helpful for anybody to hear the possibility of this and the possibility of that. . . and things are difficult enough for most people for that to be compounded with that kind of thinking aloud."
Despite the minister's comments on Friday, Mr Kelly said he met Mr Quinn "loads of times this week" and claimed: "I think we are on the one page."
Yesterday, Mr Quinn stood by his comments saying, no decision had been made on the subsidy and that it was "unhelpful and unconstructive to speculate".
In April, Tanaiste and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, who, through a scholarship, attended former private school Garbally College in Galway, played down any move on the subsidy, saying the cut would not necessarily save the State money.
"Irrespective of whether the pupils are attending private schools or public schools, they're still at school anyway and the money would have to be paid. So if these were public schools, the salaries would have to be paid in any event," he said.
However, the Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg, who sent his children to State schools, said that it was "absolute nonsense" to argue that cutting the payment would add an extra burden on the taxpayer.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, he said: "These schools are elitist, purely because of their wealth.
"It's nonsense to suggest the rich will send their children to non-fee paying schools if the subsidy is ended. They'll keep themselves apart.
"I can't see Blackrock or Clongowes becoming public schools. In England, where they have public schools, which are big fee-paying private schools, not a red cent of taxpayer's money goes towards them but they maintain their private status.
"The religions are involved for a reason and that's so they can have a direct say in who are going to be the leaders of society."
Mr Stagg said the fact that Mr Quinn was a Blackrock College past pupil, "proved his point" about the religious orders involving themselves in the "upbringing" of the country's upper echelon.
Dublin TD Robert Dowds, who went to a Church of Ireland private school, Kings Hospital, and sent his children to the upmarket High School on Zion Road, also called on the Education Minister to cut the grants.
"He should put an end to the €96m State subsidy to private schools, which has been supporting educational privilege and inequality in Ireland for far too long," he said.
Referring to Clongowes College, Mr Dowds added: "The fact that there is at least one private school in this country that has its own golf course, among other facilities, and that that school is being supported by the taxpayer, should open people's eyes to the level of inequality in our education system.
"With the country in such economic difficulty, it simply has to be tackled. As a member of the Church of Ireland, I would be happy to support the minister if he removed the subvention that private fee-paying schools receive.
Kilkenny TD Ann Phelan said she did not think taxpayers should subsidise private schools but added that it would not be easy to remove the funding.
"I'm not for pulling the rug from under their feet. I'd much rather phase it out on an incremental basis, but in the long run we should end it," she said.
She added: "I find it very hard to stand over today's subsidising of private schools when you have all the problems on the healthcare side, with home-help packages being cut.
Senator John Kelly, from Roscommon, commented: "When you start looking at cuts to disability services and Down Syndrome services, we can't justify continuing to invest in private secondary schools."