Fee paying schools provide choice in a diverse society

Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, has today (Friday), called for a practical, supportive and inclusive attitude towards fee paying schools as the Budget approaches.

“In recent years a number of fee paying schools have migrated into the public system. While this is the right choice for the schools in question, it is not a financially viable option for all, and from a very practical point of view, the Government cannot afford to make this change.

“The cost to the state of the migration of Kilkenny College into the public stream was over €3 million. We simply cannot afford to do this for the 53 fee paying schools in the country.

“As a former school principal and a TD, I support choice for parents. Parents should have the right to choose which school they would like to send their children to. Many fee paying schools promote minority faiths and there are very limited options for these minority faiths such as the Church of Ireland in the public stream.

“In some constituencies, the reality is that there are very few other options other than fee paying schools. This is not a question of which schools are better. Both type of schooling provide children with an excellent standard of education. The simple fact is that in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown many of the public schools are over subscribed. These parents are not extremely wealthy, they are struggling to pay the bills but if they want to send their children to a local school, fee paying schools are the only option.

Great news in Education as fee-charging school funding and pupil teacher ratios maintained

Fine Gael Dun Laoghaire Deputy, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, has today (Tuesday) welcomed the news that funding for fee-charging schools has been maintained in Budget 2014.

Deputy Mitchell O’Connor, who is the chair of the Fine Gael Internal Committee on Education which has worked extensively on this issue, went on to say that the protection of the pupil teacher ratios for primary schools at 28:1, DEIS schools at 18.25:1, post-primary schools at 19:1 and fee-charging schools at 23:1 is a victory for our children’s future learning.

“The decision to leave funding for fee-charging schools untouched in the Budget was the right one. Apart from the impact reducing funding for this sector would have on the school going population in certain areas, the reality is that a large number of parents with children who are attending fee-charging school are struggling to cope with costs, as a result of job losses and wage reductions in recent years.

“In some areas, such as Dun Laoghaire, there are simply not enough public school places to cater to the number of children in the area. As a result, some parents, who want their children to attend a local school, are left with no other choice than to stump up for a fee-charging education. In border areas, or for many minority faith families, ensuring that children can avail of an education of their choosing, means attending a fee-charging school is one of necessity. The argument that the bill to mitigate against any reduction in the State subvention for these schools would be picked up by the parents of the children attending them, fails to take account of the financial reality facing a huge number of these parents.

“Ensuring that parents have choices when determining what sort of school their children will go to is so important. Whether it is an Educate Together, a single or co-ed school, or a school with a particular religious ethos, it is essential that we continue to provide a range of options that do not unfairly financially penalise parents.

“Each year, as the Government attempts to undo the economic damage inflicted on the economy by Fianna Fáil, the Budget adjustment becomes increasingly challenging. Minister Noonan and Howlin, along with the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Cabinet, have crafted a Budget that is fair and equitable, which aims to support job creation in the most effective way possible and allows for our successful exiting of the Troika bailout.

“I am delighted that, despite the fact an adjustment of €2.5 billion has to be taken out of the economy again next year, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn TD recognise the contribution fee-charging schools have made to fiscal consolidation in previous years and have maintained funding and the pupil teacher ratio at current levels.”

15 October 2013

Parents should not be penalised for sending children to fee-paying schools

As we head into the budget next week, all eyes are on the possible changes that may be made to allow for an adjustment of somewhere in the region of €2.5 billion.

As a former principal in a State-funded primary school, and as the chairwoman of the internal Fine Gael committee on education, I am fully aware of the importance of quality education, quality teaching and the impact the pupil/teacher ratio has on our children’s learning. A further increase in the pupil teacher ratio in next week’s budget would have a serious impact on our schools.

Some argue against the State contributing towards the education of children whose parents (who have of course paid their income tax) can afford to send their offspring to schools that charge exorbitant fees. However, the reality is much more complex.

In some constituencies, such as the one I represent (Dún Laoghaire), historical educational decisions mean that parents do not have much in the way of choice when it comes to sending their children to free voluntary secondary schools and community or VEC schools.

Due to the fact that many of the schools in and around Dún Laoghaire did not go into the voluntary system in the 1960s, we now have a large number of fee-paying schools and very few State-funded ones, which means that for many parents, sending their children to a fee-paying school is a matter of necessity rather than choice. Because of this historical overhang, and through no fault of their own, many parents of fee-paying students have been forced to stump up for their children’s education in order to send them to a local school.

All parents make choices regarding their children’s education based on a number of factors; whether or not the school is a local one, whether it is a single-sex or a co-ed school or has a particular religious ethos. I strongly believe that parents should have that choice and that they should not be unnecessarily financially penalised for it.
Parents of a minority faith have particularly little choice because most schools of their ethos are fee-charging secondary schools, most are co-educational, have boarding facilities and teach a wide curriculum for a diverse population of pupils. Moreover, these schools are few in number and often small and situated in rural areas such as Cavan, Monaghan, Offaly, Louth and Donegal. Any suggestion that these schools should be penalised for catering for their minority community, irrespective of means and abilities, is totally at odds with the principles and values for which Irish society should stand for.

During the course of the debate about fee-paying schools, a realistic view of our financial circumstances has been lacking. Some suggest that reducing or withdrawing the State subvention to fee-paying schools will save the State money, the slack for which will be taken up by parents. The reality is, however, that if the State ceased or reduced funding to fee-paying schools, many parents who send their children to private schools, and who were once able to afford a fee-paying education but are now struggling, would be forced to take them out of private education and instead send them into the public system. This will increase demand for public school places, which are already seriously limited in some areas, heaping additional costs on the State in the process.

The spotlight being placed by the Department of Education on fee-paying schools will cost jobs, hurt children, and, in many cases, force schools to join the State sector, where they will cost the taxpayer more than they do now.
Many parents in constituencies that do not have a sufficient number of public school places, like Dun Laoghaire, are paying colossal mortgages for modest 3/4 bedroom semi-detached homes. Many of these people have lost their jobs due to the recession or have taken serious cuts in their salaries, making providing for a private, and locally based, education for their children a struggle.

Now is not the time to have an ideological debate that would result in exorbitant additional costs to the State while putting serious pressure on and doing damage to our public school system in the process.

Published in the Irish Times, Friday 11th October 2013