Fast Times at the the Oireachtas Committee on Education… on fee-charging schools. April 30, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
As noted in the Irish Times last week, the Oireachtas Committee on Education saw the arrival of the:
…Joint Managerial Body (JMB) delegation yesterday. The JMB represents the management of almost 400 voluntary secondary schools in the State, of which 56 are fee- charging.
They were there to defend the case of fee-charging (not fee-paying – see below) schools. Mostly.
So we heard a lot about how fee-charging schools served the society… by saving money!
[Sister Eileen Randles of the Loreto Education Trust ] I had not finished my point about the salaries of teachers. The teacher requirement follows the pupils. Mr. Kelly said there are 26,000 pupils in the fee paying schools. They will have to be taught whatever school they are in. It is simplistic to suggest taking the salaries off the fee paying schools. If we had to become public schools, as in the English set up, most of the schools I know would not continue because we could not run schools to which parents would have to pay €20,000 to €30,000 per annum. If those youngsters were in the free scheme, the teachers would have to be paid. The argument is a specious one.
Senator Healy-Eames asked about fee levels. The average fee per annum in the schools in which I am involved is approximately €3,600 per annum. The question about the location got me agitated. We run four fee paying schools in the greater Dublin area. We also have four schools in the free scheme in the greater Dublin area, one of which is a DEIS school. It is fairly difficult to become categorised as a DEIS school in the current situation. We also are co-patrons of two community schools. I am happy to say Deputy Hayes soldiered with me on the board of one of the schools in west Tallaght.
The fact is that the payment of fees subsidises the lack of proper State funding for education in Ireland – not the other way around, as is sometimes suggested. In schools that do not charge fees, parents, teachers and school management are involved in significant levels of fund-raising as a matter of course. What is at times ignored is the saving to public funds that accrues from students being educated in schools that seek to raise funds through charging fees. It should be remembered that the parents of students in the fee-charging schools are taxpayers and are entitled to free post-primary education for their children. It is also important to point out that teachers have to be provided for the students in the overall education system at any given time regardless of the school attended.
In effect, the fee-paying school model is the public private partnership model at its most effective. The State contributes to the fee-paying school through teachers’ salaries and the parents contribute the remainder through fees and other fund-raising ventures. This results in a significant saving to the State on its obligation to provide free post-primary education to all citizens.
The public private partnership at its most effective. Hmmm… not the description I’d have proffered at this particular point in time.
Some hand-waving about percentiles of special needs…
The delegation also emphatically rejected claims that some voluntary secondary schools were not accepting their fair share of children with special needs.
Both Belvedere College and Wesley College said 10 per cent of their student intakes were children with special needs. Sr Randles said Loreto schools did not know of the students’ educational requirements until after they had been accepted into the school.
Ferdia Kelly pointed out that, under Section 29 of the Education Act 1998, parents were entitled to appeal a decision refusing their child a place in a school. There was no evidence of any “unusual patterns” associated with any particular types of schools in the appeals made, he said.
And elitism? Perish the thought!
The trustees of Catholic fee-charging schools are very aware of their obligation to address the issue of inequality. Many different approaches have developed. Some schools have established bursaries and scholarship schemes which are available to support a percentage of children in the school. In addition, fee reduction and waiver schemes are in place to support families who find themselves falling on tough times.
Both free education and fee-charging schools in the voluntary secondary sector are noted for their commitment to social justice programmes. Many very effective programmes have been initiated in voluntary secondary schools in response both to local social justice issues and global injustice and deprivation, especially in the developing world.
The legislation quoted earlier and equality legislation rightly oblige all schools to treat equally all applicants for places in the school. All of the 400 voluntary secondary schools, including fee-charging schools, welcome students with special educational needs. Applications from parents with a child with special educational needs are processed as per the school’s admissions policy which must be in compliance with section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act.
I wonder was Mr. Kelly used the phrase above very carefully when he rejected the charges of elitism against the ‘voluntary secondary schools’ because as he will know there are 400 in the state of which 56 are fee-charging. (as it happens the non-fee charging voluntary secondary schools are much less problematic than the latter group – at least to me). Because it is hard to take seriously the contention that fee-charging schools aren’t elitist. Of their intrinsic nature their makeup as regards socio-economic groups is skewed when compared with the general public. Or as Gerry Foley, principle of Belvedere College, noted:
The other area of key interest is the percentage of students coming from a background of socioeconomic difficulty. Currently, 10% of our intake is from a lower socioeconomic background. Bursaries are provided for this group. With the changing economic climate, this need is probably increasing as middle income couples lose one or both of the jobs in their households. The media have been interested in what has been the impact of this development on the intake to the schools.
The vast majority of the intake of the schools with which I am familiar is of students from middle earning families. These include many public servants such as gardaí, teachers and nurses who would not be considered to be in the lower socioeconomic group by any means. However, if one or both partners lose their jobs, the couple will find it has a different economic status which would not have come to our attention on their application. This is now coming to our attention as they warn or forewarn us that they are in difficulty.
The 10% figure refers specifically to students who are in receipt of bursaries. An increasing percentage of them could be finding themselves at a disadvantage and may ostensibly appear to be reasonably well off. Perhaps that answers the questions.
10% – that few… eh?
Sr. Randles skillfully threw a red herring into the debate…
I wish to make one point lest it be lost. I wish to dispel a myth. There is a perception about academic criteria for admission to schools. For the record, the schools do not use academic criteria for admission. The question of pupils with special needs presenting in the schools is wide open and we never know whether pupils have special needs until the youngsters present after they have been accepted or if parents tell us. No academic criteria act as a block or an obstacle to anybody having access to the schools. That is all I wish to say.
Of course, it’s not the academic criteria for admission that is the issue. And while there are, naturally, exceptions in terms of parents who have struggled to put their children through them the majority of their students belong to certain fairly clearly defined socio-economic brackets.
Now let’s get this straight. Parents of students in fee-charging schools are indeed taxpayers. And they are indeed entitled to “free” post primary education for their children. But they’ve chosen not to use the free post-primary education and instead have decided to pay some monies to have them privately educated (and isn’t Sr. Randles figure of €20,000 – €30,000 as a possible true economic cost for such an education, as distinct from the still eye-watering but rather lesser figure of €3,600, very revealing?). This operates in a similar fashion to tax relief for those on higher incomes. They’re getting the benefit of the state sector plus the additional extra. What is the additional extra? Well, in part it’s a cachet that comes with attendance at such schools. In part it’s the ability to lock into networks. And so on and so forth.
I don’t think that’s equitable in the slightest. I think that as there is a constitutional right to opt out of the public sector there’s not a lot to be done about abolishing them, although that would be my first option given the chance – and then implement a comprehensive universal system that would (as I’ve discussed here previously) allow other stakeholders, be they religious or whatever, access to school buildings after class hours. But I see no reason at all why those who make a deliberate choice to move away from the public system should be financed in whole or part by the state. I think the argument about lack of state funding for education is an irrelevancy in Kelly’s argument above. The fee-charging sector is getting the best of both worlds. It has the ability to impose its own restrictions and its costs are funded by the state. And the nominal savings that he refers to through the existence of fee-charging schools don’t persuade me of the legitimacy of his argument either.
But if you think that our politicians are going to actually address this central issue, think again. From Brian Hayes we were treated to the following encomium.
I welcome Mr. Kelly and his colleagues who have appeared before the joint committee to give evidence. I thank them for their time and presentation. Mr. Kelly referred to Articles 42 to 44, inclusive, of the Constitution on the question of parental choice, which is essential in terms of the rights of parents under the Constitution. Another aspect of these articles which is rarely referred to is the issue of neutrality between the question of public and private education. The Constitution explicitly states that parents have a right to send their children to public or private schools. This appears to be an obvious and fundamental choice available to parents. Flowing from that, there is an obligation on the State to support all forms of school, public or private.
It should be recognised that many parents make extraordinary sacrifices to send their children to the school of their choice. They are not all developers, speculators or Ministers of State but include people who live ordinary lives and put aside a substantial part of their income to ensure their children receive the education they want. This choice needs to be respected.
Rónán Mullen produced an interesting statement which seemed to accept that there might be a problem:
There is what I call a tabloid journalistic perception that fee-paying schools are the problem because they are elitist and they reject people from the wrong side of the tracks. Would the witnesses agree with me that there is nothing wrong with interviewing parents and children prior to admission and using the results as a basis for a decision on admission, provided the criteria in interviewing them are correct? This means the criteria cannot include the possibility of excluding a person on the basis of special needs or because he or she comes from the wrong side of the tracks. In principle, there is nothing wrong with interviewing families – that is, children and parents – and using that interview partially as a basis for a decision.
The witnesses are in the difficult situation of being asked to reason from the particular to the general. Is it not the case that whereas many fee-paying schools may be exemplary in their approach, there are undoubtedly towns in which a bad culture has emerged? By this I mean a culture whereby some schools do have snobbish attitudes – not necessarily fee-paying schools – and are not inclined to take children from a certain socioeconomic background. In some places – for a variety of reasons, including historical ones – some schools have a particular socioeconomic profile while other schools have a completely different one, and this is unhealthy in terms of school admissions. Do the witnesses have any personal or anecdotal knowledge of this in fee-paying schools or otherwise?
Sr. Randles response was yet again masterful:
In my experience the opposite is the case. We have 12 schools around the country, including four fee-paying schools. I have seen the admissions policies of nearly all the schools due to my position on the Loreto Education Trust Board, because the patron of the school must agree to this under the relevant Act. All the admissions policies include a section on children with special educational needs. Senator Mullen was leading into this issue. The reason is that we want to be sure the needs of the particular child can be served by our school and we need to know the extent of the special needs.
We were talking almost academically about streaming versus mixed ability. There is another whole discussion about the policy of integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. I worked for the primary management association and there was a policy decision, which applied to all schools, that it was our wish to enrol every child who applied, but it could be irresponsible of a school to enrol a youngster with a particular set of special needs which the school simply could not address. It would be doing a disservice to such a child to enrol him or her. There are wonderful social reasons for entire families going to a particular school, but there is the other problem of the lack of resources. In fact, in one of the reports on this topic from the Department of Education and Science, the question of special schools was not even mentioned. Unfortunately, we will always need special schools for a particular cohort of children.
Ruairí Quinns suggested that…
I read the submissions and the background documentation in detail. It is true that the witnesses are here because of the publicity about €100 million or thereabouts of teachers’ salaries going into fee-paying schools and the assertion that fee-paying schools operate discriminatory practices with regard to selection, although that has been dealt with.
Hmmmm… not to my satisfaction. But in fairness to him he was at least more probing, which led to Gerry Foley making plain something that others appear loath to discuss…
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: My next question is for Mr. Foley. He has addressed the issue of non-discrimination in regard to special needs, so I will take that as read. Belvedere College operates a policy of scholarships or bursaries which are open to those parents who would love to send their bright child to a Jesuit school of Belvedere’s reputation and with its particular ethos but simply cannot afford to do so. This is the great aspect of our education system, that every parent can aspire to the best for his or her child and can put that child forward for a scholarship competition. I like the idea of that. If I were the parent of such a child, that would be my personal direction. However, some people in the education sector have made the point to me that such a system means these schools are cherry-picking bright children from other communities and thus somehow spiritually and educationally impoverishing those communities. I am very interested in Mr. Foley’s response on this point.
Mr. Gerry Foley: The system in operation in Belvedere College is not a scholarship scheme in the traditional sense. That is a misnomer. Applicants are not required to sit an examination. We have had this system for a long time; the Jesuits had it way back before it became a formalised system. In the early stages, it was a more traditional scholarship system involving an exam. In other countries, that is the process by which schools and universities attract high talent. Although I referred to a bursary, we have struggled with the name of the scheme. It has been relaunched as the social integration scheme but we have reservations about that. The greater the financial pressure on the college to pay its way – and that pressure is greater in difficult economic times – the greater the pressure on the boys in receipt of the bursary. However, the bottom line is that they are not academically selected.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: How are they selected?
Mr. Gerry Foley: They are selected according to financial criteria. In other words, their parents must show that they cannot pay the fees. That may sound crude but it is the reality. Such parents submit their application in exactly the same way as any other, through the admissions process. The most popular mechanism is for the principal of a primary school to recommend a child and say he and his family would really like what we have to offer but they cannot pay for it. The case is then examined confidentially. I am not involved in that. A group of teachers work with the application from the beginning. Parents who apply on behalf of their child show evidence of their earnings. Sometimes a child applicant is very bright and sometimes he is not. That is not the criterion for acceptance. Until recently we struggled to fill the 10%. We went out and marketed this scheme, particularly to local inner-city primary schools.
The trustees of fee paying schools look at their schools as part of a broad addressing of social injustice and inequality. The fee is not the difficulty. The major difficulty for people coming through the bursary scheme is their own social environment, lack of expectation and the difficulties they face as families. That is a growing issue. The programme is not about the fee. It is about the teachers who, voluntarily, work constantly with the families to support the students through the school.
How do I know they are not all academically gifted? It is not my business to know the individual students. I do not need to know which students are on bursaries and which are not. I know the students whose fees are waived because that must be applied for. Graduates of the bursary programme cover the full range of jobs from manual through technical to careers requiring university degrees. They are chosen purely on economic need. That is why we shy away from the word “scholarship” because that is quite a different thing.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: I am trying to reconcile two things, and I respect what everyone has said. Catholic fee paying schools seem to be in a different situation to Protestant schools. The Catholic schools cannot be seen as a homogenous set. Each school could be looked at differently. In the league tables published in newspapers, Catholic fee-paying schools in the Dublin area appear to have an almost 100% university participation. That seems to indicate a high academic base. Mr. Foley asserts that his students come from very normal middle income families. This implies a subtle argument that for bursary students socialisation is a more central issue than fees. A bursary student, for example, will not visit another pupil’s home because he would be embarrassed to invite him back. I cannot square the assertion that fee paying school students are from middle income families, as in the post-primary free education system, and that intake criteria have nothing to do with academic ability with the extraordinary out-turn in published league tables. I cannot reconcile those two pieces of information.
Mr. Gerry Foley: I cannot answer for all the schools which feature on league tables but I have noticed that many are non-fee paying. There are also fee paying schools which do not feature in the league tables. The Economic and Social Research Council in Britain studied educational outcome and the determining factors of academic achievement. It found that school is a determining factor but not the primary factor. There can be variations in different year groups. In some years, an extraordinary percentage of our students go on to third level colleges, not necessarily university. Another factor is background. My father was a primary school teacher in Kerry and education was the be all and end all. In some families the major investment is in education. Their children go home and talk about education because that is their families’ focus of interest.
I was not being disparaging about the social integration problem. Coming from a poor home is not what is important. What is important is the culture of seeing that education is how one gets on in life. Another person might see earning money as the way to get on in life and might not see education as important.
Very often, bright children do not do well academically in our school and very average children do incredibly well. I have worked in nine schools, including schools in some of the most deprived wards in London. The differences are parental support, drive and expectation.
What has taken all the schools forward is huge teacher expectation. May I come back briefly to mixed ability teaching? I have worked with various types of mixed ability classes. The drive to get children to sit as many higher level papers as possible in the junior certificate is crucially important. Longitudinal studies show that leaving certificate outcomes are better for children who do as many higher papers as possible in the junior certificate. We encourage pupils to take higher papers in junior certificate. It is better to get a D on an honours in junior certificate than an A on a pass paper. We do not have to push hard because parents want it.
Which led to the following exchange:
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Mr. Foley spoke about average children who do very well. He hit the nail on the head when he emphasised parental support. We all want the best for our children. Parents in lower socio-economic situations want their children to do better than they themselves have done and give huge support. The best schools in the country with the best teachers and facilities do not necessarily get the best results. One needs a combination of factors.
Personal choice is important and it is particularly important that parents have a choice as to where they send their children to school. If parents want a particular school which represents their ethos, that is entirely their choice. If one decides to send a child to a private school there is also a cost factor.
Mr. Christopher Woods: We are not private schools.
Deputy Margaret Conlon:I am talking about fee-paying schools.
Mr. Christopher Woods: We are not private schools. We are state supported recognised schools.
Deputy Margaret Conlon:Yes, with fees.
Mr. Christopher Woods: Yes.
Deputy Margaret Conlon:That is the point. I am sorry if I used the wrong word.
Mr. Christopher Woods: The private sector does not provide the kind of support for students or the integration and breadth we have been talking about here.
Mr. Noel Merrick: We are all voluntary secondary schools.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Fee-paying schools.
Mr. Christopher Woods: Schools do not pay fees.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Of course. They charge fees.
Mr. Noel Merrick: We are all voluntary secondary schools.
Deputy Margaret Conlon:If a parent makes a particular choice a fee may attach to that choice. That is the point I wished to make.
Ignore, if you can, the pedantic condescension and consider that this ‘choice’ is a choice that, for many, cannot be exercised thereby undercutting the entire notion of it being a ‘choice’ at all.
And lest this seem like carping against supposedly timeless institutions let’s note what Ferdia Kelly said at the Committee:
The joint managerial body represents the managements of almost 400 voluntary secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland, of which 56 are fee charging. It negotiates for, represents, advises and supports boards of management, governors and school managements at both national and local level in the network of voluntary secondary schools, all but 21 of which are under the trusteeship of Catholic trustees. The remaining 21 are also denominational in character but their trustees represent minority faith traditions.
Post-primary schools which charge fees do not form a homogeneous sector because they have emerged through the evolution of each school in its own right. This evolution has taken place in the context of the decision of the trustees of each individual school in the first instance to establish a school at a particular location. The development of these schools has, in turn, been heavily influenced by both local and national events. All voluntary secondary schools charged fees before the Government’s decision to introduce free post-primary education in 1967. The 56 fee charging schools have evolved from the voluntary secondary schools that decided for a variety of reasons not to join the free education scheme in 1967.
And nothing that even approaches a coherent left view of the necessity for universal state education as a prerequisite of any project to dismantle centres of privilege in this society.