A decision that caused shockwaves throughout the country's 51 fee-charging secondary schools has received no coverage in the media.
In late July, the Department of Education unveiled its Covid package of supports to help schools to reopen safely. This was worked out in consultation with the 'education partners' (teacher unions, schools managers, etc). But when the package was published, there was an unexpected clause - the grants would not go to schools charging fees.
The money involved is significant. A 600-pupil school might expect to get €200,000, including a grant of €70,000 for 'minor works' to get as many students back into classrooms while observing the one-metre rule, €63,000 for extra supervision, €35,000 for more teaching hours, €20,000 for cleaning and so on.
The fee-paying schools didn't have separate representation at the talks. Their interests were represented by the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) representing the management of non-State secondary schools. It seems likely the JMB didn't raise the issue of the fee-paying schools and that the Department of Education didn't reveal its intentions either. But while usually the JMB and other partners would have sight of the department's plans ahead of publication, it didn't happen this time.
As for the media black-out - perhaps because they sense a lack of sympathy among the media and the wider public, the 51 schools have chosen to make their representations in private.
The Department of Education has now made a partial concession to their pleas. Fee-charging schools can now apply for the grants, but will be judged on a case-by-case basis and only after submitting a large amount of paperwork to prove they can't find the resources otherwise. Even if they submit a financial case in the limited time available, there is no transparency about the decision criteria.
Some might see it as reasonable to withhold scarce resources from the relatively rich, and to give them to the relatively poor. But it's not that simple. In the end, it is not schools at the receiving end of this discrimination but families made up of parents (mostly taxpayers) and their children, and the principals and teachers who will have the stress of making Covid safety arrangements without any extra support from the State.
The department's actions could be open to question on constitutional and legal grounds. In Ireland, as in many European countries, the State is not generally the direct provider of education, but rather the funder of those who wish to run schools as long as their schools meet a proper standard. Hence Catholic schools, Protestant schools, Educate Together schools, Gaelscoileanna.
The Constitution provides at Article 42.2 that parents shall be free to educate "in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State". Article 42.4 commits the State to giving "reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative".
While there are already differences in the levels of State funding given to different kinds of schools, with fee-paying schools getting the least, there's nothing in either the Constitution or the Education Act to suggest a basis for differential treatment. And the discrimination in this case seems pretty blatant. It involves families of children in fee-paying schools subsidising supports for everyone else's children while their own school of choice may get nothing at all.
If children in fee-paying schools are to be cherished equally, the State has a basic obligation to help keep them safe.
If a fee-paying school doesn't have the resources to make the adaptations necessary at this time, it must levy the parents. Not all of these people are well-off. Some make big sacrifices to give their children the best possible chance as they see it, and the school fees they pay are not tax-deductible. In some cases, it may be a grandparent or other relation paying fees.
Many minority Christian churches provide for their children's education by charging fees and using the money for bursaries to members of their community who couldn't afford school fees otherwise. A few such schools are wealthy but most are running a tight operation, and don't have access to an unbudgeted €200,000 in the weeks before a new term. Likewise most Catholic fee-paying schools.
I didn't attend a fee-paying school and no one belonging to me attends one. I chair a primary school board of management that gets extra resources under the disadvantaged school (DEIS) scheme. I favour taxing higher earners to help maximise the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But the country is not well served by any ideology that says families are wrong to supplement their children's education through fees. I don't know whether the Cabinet signed off on this exclusion, or whether the Education Minister was told in advance. But it looks like this decision was the civil service equivalent of a political stroke, a decision based on the calculation that nobody would object publicly.
If I'm right, the minister should reflect on such activist tendencies within her department. Her party colleagues will soon let her know whether the parents and families affected are making their views known to any significant degree.
Rónán Mullen is an independent Senator for the National University of Ireland constituency