Wednesday 23 January 2019

Private schools shouldn't gain from inequality

He wasn't to blame for the decisions - but Shane Ross has put the spotlight on inequality in Irish schools, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Eilis O'Hanlon

It was a move worthy of "Sally Jockstrap", the spoof female reporter invented by satirical magazine Private Eye, who constantly gets basic details wrong as she struggles manfully (pun definitely intended) to be one of the lads.

This time, though, it was Shane Ross, Minister for Sport as well as Transport and Tourism, who managed, in the caption to one of those selfies that he loves to post on Twitter, to mix up rugby-playing brothers Rob and Dave Kearney in a tweet congratulating Ireland's Grand Slam heroes as they celebrated their homecoming in the Shelbourne Hotel.

Ross took it on the chin when the error was pointed out to him, not least by Rob himself, who responded by light-heartedly calling Shane "Leo" - but the damage was done. Anyone looking to rib the minister as another out-of-touch dilettante already had enough ammunition.

Minister Ross, unfortunately, then got embroiled in a row over whether he had helped get funding for sports facilities at not one but two private schools in his Dublin Rathdown constituency. Earlier this month he tweeted that he was "pleased" to announce €150,000 for resurfacing of an all-weather pitch at Loreto Beaufort, and "delighted" to announce that Wesley College was also getting €150,000 to resurface the hockey pitch.

Why this didn't cause more of a fuss at the time isn't clear. Maybe his 55,000 followers have better things to do with their time than check out the minister's departmental updates, implausible as that might seem. Or it could be that the Taoiseach's recent gaffe in Washington, when he appeared to suggest he had a hand in the rejection of a planning application for a wind farm next to President Trump's golf course in Co Clare, prompted a search for other ministers who might have crossed an ethical line when it came to giving a helping hand to the well-off and well-connected.

Either way, Shane Ross strongly denies he did anything wrong, telling RTE that he "never made an application to any official", and insisting the tweets were not claiming credit for arranging the grants to Loreto or Wesley, but merely an announcement they'd been made. The delight was only because the schools are in his constituency.

He also pointed out that he had, as minister, previously signed off on initial rejections of these same funding applications under the Sports Capital Programme, and that they'd only been granted on appeal - again, with no input from him. He's further made clear that the grants application system is open to all schools. In that respect, he seems to have no case to answer.

Still, it doesn't look good to see public money going to private schools which are already awash with money.

It's a complicated argument whether private schools should receive State funding, because not all the parents of those children are rolling in privilege. Many are on modest incomes, making huge sacrifices to give their children the best education. Some people will happily spend as much on a two-week foreign holiday once a year as other parents pay on education, while still complaining that those other parents are "wealthy" and that they are not.

There's no doubt, though, that any amount of State funding going into private schools frees up the money from fees to fund additional facilities which give students with access to them another advantage in life. That is what parents pay for.

That inequality is then replicated and encoded throughout society.

Wesley College's website boasts it has four rugby pitches, one floodlit rugby grid, a soccer pitch, two mini and two full-size hockey pitches, two cricket pitches, a gym and a sports hall.

Loreto Beaufort is not quite so fancy, with fees only half as large as some of the more famous names in the private school sector, but is still well catered for.

Locals have pointed out that there are schools in the same constituency with no sports halls, whose pupils use the local leisure centre.

If the Sports Capital Programme is not prioritising those disadvantaged schools over fee-paying schools whose facilities are so inviting that some are able to charge additional annual fees to members to further boost income, then most people would have little hesitation in saying that it should.

Just because parents of pupils in fee-paying schools are good at working the system, and know how to get applications approved, even after an initial rejection, should not mean that other pupils suffer as a result.

Shane Ross was clearly not to blame directly for any of these decisions, and he deserves credit for not becoming touchy and defensive when questioned about it, admitting that some careless tweeting might have backfired on him, as on many politicians. That should be the end of it.

But as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, he is in a position to put forward proposals to tweak the application system to remove some of those ingrained inequalities.

It's bound to become a more pressing issue in the coming years, with private schools becoming increasingly popular again as the economy recovers and emigrants return.

Sunday Independent

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