Friday 15 November 2019

Enrolments at private schools plunge as families struggle to find money for fees

Katherine Donnelly and Donall Hoey

Pupil numbers in fee-paying schools are continuing to fall as the financial squeeze tightens.

There has been a steady decline in enrolments since the economic crash, although families are pulling out all the stops to pay fees.

Parents struggling to avoid disrupting their children's education are calling on grandparents, credit unions and other sources to help cover the bills.

The 56 fee-paying second-level schools now find themselves under enormous financial pressure.

At St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, Dublin, the most expensive day school in the country, fees have reduced from €12,750 in 2009/10 to €12,426 this year.

The schools are also being targeted for extra budget cuts to reduce the level of state support they receive.

Latest Department of Education figures show that enrolments have dropped by more than 500 from the 2008/09 peak of 26,685, to 26,156 in 2011/12.

However, in the face of rising second-level pupil numbers generally, the scale of the fall is much bigger.

In September 2008 -- the month the banking crisis unfolded -- enrolments in private schools had risen to their highest ever, accounting for 8.6pc of second-level pupils. That has now fallen to 6.9pc, close to the level a decade ago before the Celtic Tiger boom, and is likely to drop further.

Parents taken by surprise by the economic crash have striven to avoid taking children out of their school of choice.

Scrutiny

However, in the face of the new financial realities, decisions are being taken not to enrol them in the first place.

With savings of €79m demanded from the Department of Education next year, private schools are under particular scrutiny in the run-up to the December Budget.

The schools take in almost €120m a year in fee income, and the department has been carrying out an analysis of the financial situation of each individual school.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is under pressure to end the state subsidy for the sector -- €95m last year, including €86m paid in teacher salaries.

Such a radical step is not going to happen, but the schools are likely to take a further hit on how many teachers the State is prepared to pay for, on top of a cut last year.

Fee-paying schools say it is unfair to single them out, and insist it would cost the State more to educate the same pupils if they were in the free education system.

They argue that the State would still have to pay their teachers, and the department would also be liable for running costs and building bills.

Protestant schools are particularly vulnerable to cuts, because they draw pupils from a wider socio-economic base than Catholic, fee-paying schools, typically located in well-heeled city suburbs.

The Protestant schools are predominantly boarding, in order to provide an education in their minority ethos for families scattered over a wide geographic region, many of whom are far from well-off.

Ian Coombes, principal of Kilkenny College, the largest Protestant co-educational school in the country, said they had frozen fees since 2008.

He said they also supported families by offering bursaries, or through the special block grant provided by Department of Education, to support Protestant families in getting an education in their ethos.

Mr Coombes said the call for financial support was growing: "More families are in need and also have greater need."

Eleanor Petrie of the Protestant Parents' Association said more than one in three parents of children in the Protestant fee-paying schools had to look for financial assistance to keep their children in their school of choice.

More worryingly, she said, half of parents said they would have to seek financial assistance next year.

Irish Independent

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