Private schools a necessity for Protestants

CURRENT ATTACKS on fee-charging schools ignore the fact that Protestant boarding schools often offer the only viable solution for Church of Ireland families living outside the capital to get an education in a school of their ethos.

The simple reality for Protestants living outside Dublin is that very few of them have access to a local secondary school that shares their faith. This means that they are forced to send children away to a boarding school – this is often expensive, and effectively a tax on their beliefs.

In the school where I am headmaster, Kilkenny College, more than 90 per cent of the boarders are Church of Ireland. They come from Kilkenny and the neighbouring counties. Parents make enormous sacrifices to ensure that their children can attend.

I know from personal experience many of them do without holidays or other luxuries to cover the costs, because the State doesn’t provide free education in day-schools for Protestants across huge swathes of the State. For a majority, attendance is only possible through accessing a means-tested grant.

Consider these facts; only 12 counties in the Republic have a Protestant secondary school of any description. There are only six free Protestant second-level schools and three of these are in Dublin and Wicklow.

This means that most Protestants cannot attend a free school because they live many hours’ drive from one. This makes a good network of rural boarding schools essential to serve the thinly scattered population. These schools are inclusive, not elitist.

These simple facts distinguish Protestant boarding schools from their Catholic fee-charging counterparts. The latter have alternatives and pupils could choose to go to the local Catholic secondary school.

In the past this has been recognised by the State, and Protestant schools have been funded a little differently. Even in this country’s darkest days, governments have found ways to respect and protect the different ethos and beliefs of the country’s minorities.

Protestants have also been flexible. Ever since free education was introduced in secondary schools over 40 years ago, the Protestant churches rationalised and amalgamated their second-level schools rapidly to attempt to cover a very scattered, low-density population at a low cost.

The State agreed a modified approach for the remaining Protestant secondary schools where equivalent State funding to the free scheme was provided, with the additional cost provided by parents through fees and by donors and trustees.

That system worked at little cost to the State until 2008 when then minister for education Batt O’Keeffe unilaterally changed the arrangement. Thereafter, Protestant secondary schools would be treated the same as fee-charging Catholic schools. The difference, of course, is that for Protestant parents over most of the country there simply is no choice provided by the State of a school of the same ethos.

Since 2008, parents who wish their children to attend the remaining fee-charging schools have seen their teacher allocation and grants cut.

When mention of the supposed €100 million in State subsidies to fee-charging schools is made, many fee-paying parents comment that it is they who have been subsidising the State.

The cost to the State of keeping a child in one of the Protestant secondary schools is far less than that of going to a local secondary vocational or comprehensive school. A PricewaterhouseCooper study found that the cost to the State of each pupil in a fee-charging school is €3,483 less per year.

Protestant parents who wish to exercise their constitutional right to send their children to a school of their ethos now fear that their schools of choice may soon be forced to close or raise fees so high that most parents will no longer be able to afford them. That fear stems from media comment of further disimprovement of the pupil/teacher ratio relative to other schools.

Already stretched on all fronts, parents and schools’ management believe such a move would result in a tipping point with extremely serious fallout.

A liberal, pluralist and democratic republic has a responsibility to its minorities. Protestant parents and school managers simply ask for the same level of State funding as any other sector.

Schools like Kilkenny College provide not only tuition and accommodation but careful attention to health, safety, child protection, nutrition, extra curricular activities and supervision to name but a few of the daily needs.

That requires many additional staff and a strong extra-curricular programme in which day pupils also engage. The Protestant rural schools are all co-educational, and they have pupils across the widest ability spectrum from rural and urban backgrounds.

In an era of cutbacks, when our country has to use every euro wisely, education remains essential. It is right that many people question the old ways of doing things but this is one example where good sense, tolerance and co-operation had produced a balanced model that worked well.

Until the State is in a position to provide a dense network of free Protestant schools, the fairest system is the system that existed until 2008.

There is already an effective tax on Protestants by forcing so many to educate semi-privately. To impose yet more charges and cuts on Protestant schools will only make things even more unjust.

Ian Coombes is headmaster of Kilkenny College