Abolish the €100m State funding for private schools. By Mark Lonergan (current edn, Village)

Jerusalem in South County Dublin

“the’best’ schools in the country are off limits to the children of  immigrants, members of the Travelling community or those with special needs”

By Mark Lonergan

The growing fiscal crisis demands cuts in State expenditure. One cut would actually enhance the common good. What better place to start than the present state subvention for private schools? The economic meltdown will  devastate average household budgets but leave intact the unassailable bastions that are our nation’s elite private schools which, according to figures released recently, still  managed to enrol over 26,000 pupils this year despite charging fees in the region of €6,000 a year for day students and up to €20,000 for boarders.

These schools share certain characteristics that make them anathema to those who believe that equality ought to be the foundation of our education system. The  admissions policies of these schools are blatantly discriminatory as they give preference to the children of former students, siblings of current students, attendees of their fee-paying junior schools and relatives of their teaching staff. Even more intimidating for those outside the existing educational elite is the fact that many of these schools insist on interviewing both the applicant child and their parents as part of their admissions process. The result of all of this is that some of the’best’ schools in the country are off limits to the children of  immigrants, members of the Travelling community or those with special needs who would benefit most from having access to them and leads to a total lack of any meaningful diversity in the student body. Our private schools are facilitating educational Apardheid.

In a democracy many would say that parents have every right to send their children to a far-from-free school. Harder to understand is the lavish State largesse that these fee-paying schools continue to receive – over €100 million a year, the bulk of which goes toward teachers’ salaries.

The most up-to-date Department of Education figures show the 51 fee-paying schools received this support for teacher salaries in 2008/09 with an additional €2.1 million for capital or building works in 17 fee-paying schools last year.

For example, St Andrew’s in Booterstown, Dublin  received over €5 million in State supports, including over €4.5 million for teacher salaries and €460,000 for building works; Blackrock College  received over €4.2 million from the State for teacher salaries and an additional €114,000 for building works.

In an age when parents feel obliged to collect  vouchers for essential educational  equipment for schools, it is impossible to understand why the ordinary decent taxpayer should be forced to watch taxes being used to fund schools that have a deliberate policy of discriminating against their own offspring. Private schools  may spend excess funds on floodlights for the hockey pitches while poorer schools are  denied special-needs funding or conduct classes from damp prefabs. With teacher salaries paid by the State, many fee-paying schools enjoy much better facilities than their counterparts in the free second-level sector. Language Labs are the norm in South County Dublin, whereas the State school in North Tipperary has to make do with an antiquated tape recorder.

Furthermore, the private secondary school model is predominantly a Dublin phenomenon: 37 of the fee-paying schools are in Dublin with  over 70% in its South County. Why is taxpayer’s money being diverted to the richest area of Ireland?

At a very minimum fee-paying schools should be forced to choose between adopting an open and transparent admissions process or face the removal of all State funding. These schools will survive as they have access to money from both donations and fees – and from both alumni and parents. Sean Dunne famously gifted €1m to Clongowes Wood for an all- weather Rugby pitch.

It is hard not to conclude that the decision of the rainbow coalition to abolish third level fees in 1996 represented a lazy apology for a decision. A quick jaunt around any Dublin university would have shown the main beneficiaries of free fees are not children from the poorest families but middle-class families who, relieved of the future burden of third-level fees, responded to  this windfall by reallocating their resources towards their kids’ secondary education.  And that this led to an unprecedented demand for fee-paying secondary schools with the consequence that some excellent State schools, such as Greendale in North Dublin, found they could not fill places and were forced to close.

Having enjoyed such benefits at second-level it is hardly surprising that the majority of the alumni of these feeder schools motor on to third level.  They usually fill nine of the top 10 places in the broadsheet staple lists of feeder schools to   leading universities. In the face of such base unfairness surely  fiscal Armaggedon  compels an end to State subsidies for  private schools and the diversion of the €100 million savings to schools that are simply more deserving? Perhaps the reason this is never discussed is that our political and media masters have vested interests in upholding this scandalously counter-egalitarian educational tradition.