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David Quinn: Fee-paying schools are not a drain on taxpayers

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Fee-paying schools don't cost the taxpayer money, they save us money. That fact should be front and centre whenever the subject of private schools is back in the news, as it has been this week.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has ordered an investigation into how the country's 56 fee-paying schools are using the €120m they raise from parents annually.

What does he intend doing with this information? Does he intend penalising schools that are successful at raising funds by reducing the amount of money they receive from the State to pay teachers' salaries?

The only message this will give to such schools is that they ought to spend less time fund-raising for fear that the State will cut its support if they manage to raise 'too much' money.

Schools that are good at fund-raising use the money -- over and above the regular fees -- mainly to improve their facilities or to employ extra teachers.

Why would Mr Quinn want to discourage this?

Doesn't he value educational excellence?

Even at the best of times, fee-paying schools are seen by many as bastions of privilege. Therefore, they can cause a great deal of resentment.

In a recession, they are likely to be even more resented, with public money in short supply. Between them, the 56 fee-paying schools receive around €100m from the State annually.

Wouldn't it be better to withdraw the €100m and let the private schools sink or swim on their own?

The answer to that is emphatically no. Such a move wouldn't save us €100m, instead it could cost us close to that sum.

Recently, the fee-paying schools commissioned a report to determine what it costs the State -- that is, you and me -- to put a child through a fee-paying school compared with a non-fee-paying one.

The report was based on figures from the Department of Education. To cut a long story short, the cost to the State of a pupil attending a non-fee-paying secondary school is around €8,000 per annum.

The cost of sending that same pupil to a fee-paying secondary school costs the taxpayer around €4,500 per annum.

In other words, fee-paying schools save the taxpayer around €3,500 per pupil, per year.

There are 26,000 pupils in our fee-paying schools, meaning the total annual saving to the taxpayer is €91m.

That is what it would cost the State if all the fee-paying schools closed in the morning -- so those who resent them and wish for them to close should be very careful what they wish for.

And think of exactly what it is they resent. What they resent is parents seeking to benefit their children by spending additional sums on their education, often by making very big financial sacrifices. The average fee for a private school is around €5,000 per annum.

Therefore, the money parents pay towards fee-paying schools does little more than make up the difference between the €4,500 it costs the State if a pupil goes to a private school, and the €8,000 it costs the State if that same child goes to a public one.

An analogy can be drawn with the health system. Private health insurance saves the taxpayer money. If a person can't go to a private hospital, they obviously end up in the public system instead.

Apart from the fact that this increases the cost of the public system, it makes already over-crowded public hospitals even more over-crowded.

Aware of this, the State encourages us to take out private insurance by allowing us to claim our premiums against tax. This is why the increased levy just imposed by the Government on health insurance makes absolutely no sense.

All it will do is drive more people into the public system and is likely to cost the State more than it saves.

Making fee-paying schools more expensive will have exactly the same effect. If the Labour and trade union-inspired attack on private schools continues, and State support for those schools is reduced, then they will have to increase their fees.

If they have to increase their fees by more than a certain amount, it will result in parents withdrawing their children from private schools and putting them in public schools instead, at an extra cost to the State of €3,500 per pupil per year.

This might suit Labour ideology, which puts a certain self-defeating notion of equality above educational excellence, but it makes no economic sense whatsoever.

Instead of resenting parents who make financial sacrifices in order to further their children's education, the State should be encouraging them.

Ireland needs more fee-paying schools, not fewer. The more money parents spend on education, the better.

Therefore, instead of targeting private education, the State should really be incentivising it in the same way it incentivises private health insurance.

The money saved by the State can then be ploughed into schools in disadvantaged areas and, in that way, everyone wins.

Irish Independent