Monday 8 October 2007

Teaching private schools a lesson

Mary Hanafin has announced that new fee-paying schools will get no assistance from the government. The Indo seems to have an exclusive with this one; the Minister was reportedly answering a query from Ruairi Quinn, as if to remind Labour that Fianna Fail can be as lefty as anyone, thank you very much indeed. Existing fee-paying schools- of which there are 56 in the State- are to be left alone, but new ones will not receive funding henceforth.

This is an intelligent move by the Minister. Freezing public funding for rich kids is hard to object to openly, and by guaranteeing existing schools any middle-class outcry is stifled. Incidentally, this is also a sign that the new coalition mix is producing some policy changes. The weakened PDs are in no position to block an attack on parental choice in education- which they surely would have in days gone by- and the Greens presumably sympathise with Hanafin.

Whether private schools have a place in Irish education at all is a question that has never aroused the passions that continue to attend the grammar school issue across the water. Anthony Crossland's famous pledge to "destroy every fucking grammar school in England" is a reflection of ideological strife that, for better or for worse, never really got in the way of civil war politics over here. Besides, in Ireland the issue is complicated by the fact, noted by the Indo, that Protestant schools continue to get a hefty dollop of funding in recognition of their minority status. Hanafin will not want to involve these establishments in a tug-of-war between pluralism and social justice- so quite apart from middle-class ire, this consideration should keep existing arrangements in place in the long run.

The English debate may prove instructive in one area, however. There is concern that private (a.k.a. "public") schools there are not doing enough to justify their lucrative charitable status. The link is to an old article, but there have been more recent rumblings that I've been unable to find online. In any case, perhaps private schools here should be asked to do more, in terms of social outreach and serving the community, to justify their funding. In addition, more could be done to address the gripes that these schools avoid taking their share of special needs pupils. Unfavourable coverage of the gap in standards between State and private schools may already be forcing some boards to take stock. Gonzaga College, one of the most sought-after in the country, has already changed its admission policy so that "inability to pay should no longer be an obstacle" to gaining a place there.

But don't look for a full-scale, Crossland-style attack on those lucky 56 any time soon. At the end of the day, a reduction in or end to funding just means that fees rise, putting them out of reach of ever more people. Minister Hanafin evidently believes it better that some get an elite education rather than only a few- or, indeed, all.


vince said...

Do you remember the days of the third level tax covenants.
Well, its time that the taxman had a good look at the status of the private school sector. I'll bet that the real cost is largely absorbed by the taxpayer, not just the bit handed over to the teachers by the Dept of Ed and Mistress Hanafin.

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