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