| 6°C Dublin

'Posh radicals' look to penalise their old schools in fresh threat to fee-paying sector

John Walshe


Lesson: Former education minister Ruairi Quinn’s Labour Party sought cuts to fee-paying schools in 2011 and 2012, but Fine Gael resisted. Photo: Damien Eagers

Lesson: Former education minister Ruairi Quinn’s Labour Party sought cuts to fee-paying schools in 2011 and 2012, but Fine Gael resisted. Photo: Damien Eagers

Lesson: Former education minister Ruairi Quinn’s Labour Party sought cuts to fee-paying schools in 2011 and 2012, but Fine Gael resisted. Photo: Damien Eagers

Just when the country's 50 fee-paying schools thought their future was secure, along comes a new threat - three parties are now promising to abolish the €90m annual subsidy these schools get for teachers' salaries, and at least one of them is certain to be in the next government.

The manifestos for Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and the Labour Party are much tougher on fee-paying schools than in the previous general election in 2016.

This will worry the surprisingly large number of Dublin middle-class parents who think that 'nice' Mary Lou McDonald deserves a chance in government to bring about change.

If she and party luminary Eoin Ó Broin get into government they will join a long list of Fine Gael and Labour ministers (including Leo Varadkar, Richard and John Bruton, Ruairi Quinn) who attended fee-paying schools - she went to Notre Dame in Churchtown before going to Trinity, while he studied in Blackrock College, the University of East London and Queen's Belfast. Will they become the 'posh radicals' of the next government who want to penalise their old schools?

Like everywhere else, the sector suffered during the recession. Many parents were unable to pay the full fees and schools had to write them off. A worsening of their pupil-teacher ratios during the Fine Gael-Labour coalition also left them nervous. But the return of 'boomier' times and the exit of Labour from government in 2016 gave them a new confidence.

Pupil numbers began climbing again, as did annual fees. Two out of three put up fees last September with an average rise of €165. A couple put them up by more than €400 a year and yet the demand for places continued to rise. Enrolments have risen from 25,403 last year to 25,684 in the current school year.

Some of the party promises will give their parents cause for concern again.

The biggest surprise about the recent opinion polls was not just Sinn Féin's rise, but the fact that one in seven in the AB class - middle and upper-middle classes - say they will vote for the party.

They might think again if they read the pledges, especially if they have children in fee-paying schools.

Some manifestos are well over 100 pages long but worth the read. In 2016, Sinn Féin said that subsidising private schools with millions in taxpayers' money was further entrenching educational inequalities and a two-tier system. This time round it says one of its education priorities is "ending public subsidies to private schools".

Some might quibble with what exactly the party means as strictly speaking all voluntary secondary schools are private and are (with one exception) subsidised by the State, but it is taken to mean the fee-paying sector.

The Social Democrats are much clearer when they promise to "seek an end to the State subsidy of fee-paying schools over the course of the next government".

No doubt about the intent there.

Nor is there in the Labour Party document, which largely ignored fee-paying schools in its 2016 manifesto.

This time round, the promise to "progressively remove State subsidies from the 7pc of secondary schools that are private fee-paying" is clear.

"Access to highly competitive university education is dominated by students from private schools who have an unfair advantage of having additional resources from fees combined with teachers whose salaries are paid by society as a whole," it says in its manifesto, which is mercifully shorter than some of the others.

Whether or not ending that subsidy would help Labour's aims of fostering excellence for all schools and opening up access to university is debatable.

It's quite possible and likely that the same social classes who dominate highly competitive courses would continue to do so.

Labour, of course, has history here. It sought drastic cuts to fee-paying schools in 2011 and 2012 but its demands were resisted by the dominant coalition partner, Fine Gael.

As an adviser to the then education minister Ruairi Quinn, I was approached by several schools worried about their continued existence. At one stage a dozen schools were 'kicking the tyres' about the benefits of the Free Education scheme and a handful did join.

We can predict how Fine Gael in government will react if this becomes an issue again, but if it's Fianna Fáil in the driving seat what then? It's not a question that seems to have troubled that party too much over the years, but it may have to make its mind up in the near future.

The arguments for and against the subsidy are well rehearsed. Upholding privilege and inequality versus the pragmatic argument that the savings would be small as the teachers would still have to be paid if the schools joined the Free Education Scheme. Some would resist but they would have to charge very high fees to survive and would thus become even more elitist than they are at present.

Still, it could be worse. People Before Profit promises that in power it would take schools "into public ownership and put them under local democratic control". That would certainly upset St Michael's fee-paying school - which Richard Boyd Barrett attended - on Dublin's leafy Ailesbury Road.

Solidarity pledges to nationalise all Church lands which have services like schools or hospitals, but "with no compensation". Henry VIII, who seized Catholic Church lands in England in the 16th century, would have been pleased.

Irish Independent