ONE of the country's best known fee-paying schools is going into the free education scheme in September.
Gormanston College, Co Meath, confirmed the move to the Irish Independent after staff were informed yesterday.
The school established by the Franciscan community in 1954 is co-educational, with both day and boarding pupils.
It is one of a number of schools in the fee-paying sector that has been feeling the financial pinch in recent years.
Private schools have suffered deeper cuts in state funding in recent budgets, while the economic downturn has also hit enrolments, with many families no longer able to afford fees.
This year, day fees at Gormanston are €6,000, while the rates for boarders are €8,000 and €10,000, depending on whether a pupil is staying five or seven days.
Enrolments at Gormanston have more than halved since 2008/09, when it had 477 pupils -- it has 205 this year.
Now, under the free education regime, Gormanston hopes to grow pupil numbers again and bring enrolments to 720 over the next four to five years.
The school is located close to the Dublin-Meath border, in an area which has seen population growth in the past decade.
In the absence of fees, its extensive grounds and facilities and its aim to become a "beacon on educational provision" may make it an attractive option for many families.
The authorities at Gormanston have been in discussions about its future with the Department of Education for about a year, including a recent meeting with Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
Conor O'Brien, chairperson of the school board of management, said the negotiations were tough and robust, but very professional.
Mr O'Brien said it was well accepted that the current model of fee-paying schools with add-on boarding facilities carried significant fixed costs and it was only viable with significant numbers paying significant fees. "In common with many similar schools, Gormanston suffered a drop in numbers in particular since the financial collapse, but still had to incur the fixed costs associated with a much larger operation," he said.
Faced with a difficult financial situation, Mr O'Brien said the Franciscans had many options, but there was a strong wish to continue in education, and entering the free education scheme was the "definite preferred option".
Mr O'Brien said the school authorities were delighted at the "new beginning" for the college.
In a statement, the trustees said that the free education option would be more in line with the Franciscan ethos, and in the spirit of Pope Francis, of inclusion.
The statement added: "There are many challenges ahead, but it is our firm belief that Franciscan College Gormanston can continue its long tradition of educating our young people into the future."
The Franciscans will remain as trustees but the fundamental change in status will mean significant developments in the way the school is managed.
Gormanston is the second fee-paying school to take a decision to enter the free education scheme in the past year. Kilkenny College stopped charging tuition fees last September.