You pays your money, you takes your choice… Fee charging education in Ireland. May 29, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Education, Irish Politics, Social Policy.
We’ve been talking about public sector reform a bit here, and it’s an interesting discussion. Yet an area that would surely be well-served by reform would be the payment by the Irish state of teachers wages in fee-charging schools. The current debacle at Alexandra College where a Junior Cert student was ejected from the school – whatever the somewhat murky details which seem to be not entirely clear – points up a couple of realities about the nature of private education.
The Irish Times report is fascinating:
ALEXANDRA COLLEGE has moved to defend its controversial decision to remove a Junior Cert pupil over non-payment of fees.
The move came as the National Parents’ Council requested the immediate reinstatement of the pupil.
It also follows an RTÉ interview with the mother of the pupil in which she accused the school of using “Dickensian” and “very cut-throat” methods to victimise and humiliate her 14-year-old daughter in front of her classmates.
Last night, the school refuted several of the charges made by the mother in the interview. It said it felt compelled to provide further clarification because of the parent’s decision to go public and the intense media interest.
The school said the the outstanding debt “spanned two academic years, and the college engaged in exhaustive exchanges and proposed a series of compromises to address the arrears of fees, with a genuine desire to reach a solution.
“Regrettably, we reached a situation in March where it became necessary to issue a final ultimatum that in the event of the successive proposals by the college to resolve the matter not being acted upon, it would be necessary to discontinue the provision of educational services.”
Fabulous… and what of that keyword in our contemporary societal climate – transparency?
The statement came after a special meeting of the governing school council last night.
The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill – who is the ex officio chair of the council – attended the meeting. The school yesterday refused to disclose the full membership of either its school council or its board of management.
But this is a new age, and where once such matters would have been concealed behind a deftly pulled curtain of silence where the child would have walked away with no further words the parent has, understandably, gone to a higher court of appeal than a School Council.
Enter the media!
The mother of the pupil – named only as “Marian” – was interviewed on 2FM’s Gerry Ryan Show on Tuesday.
The mother said she had attempted to make the payments on a phased basis but this was unacceptable to the school. She explained how she was separated and was coping with the collapse of her business. She claimed the school authorities handed her daughter bin bags and told her to “pack all her stuff and clear her locker out”.
Alexandra College begs to differ…
Last night, the college said it was “saddened to hear these serious allegations . . . which are far removed from the reality of what occurred.
“Media reports of how the pupil was removed from a class, that some teachers discussed her family’s financial situation with her and that she was asked to pack her belongings in a black plastic bag, are incorrect.
“Alexandra College regrets that the focus of its history, ethos and child-centred approach to education has been overshadowed by some recent media coverage of a fee issue that we held to be confidential.”
The student’s family owed in the region of €20,000. Annual fees for boarders are over €16,000. The school has stressed that the pupil will be allowed to return to sit her Junior Cert in Alexandra College next week.
Which is big of them, not least because by my rough calculation they’ve already gained the best part of €50,000 off the parent across three years.
Nor does it end there…
The National Parents Council post primary (NCPpp) asked that the student be reinstated “so she can sit the Junior Cert exam without undue stress”.
In particular and in the context of the Oireachtas Committee on Education the schools actions are a revelation. We’ve heard no end about the special ethos of the fee-charging sector, and in particular about the Protestant schools within that sector. This most certainly is an excellent insight into that ‘ethos’. It is indeed special. Very very special.
Actually, it’s interesting to compare and contrast with the statements at the Committee on Education, for example:
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.
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.
Actually one can go to the Alexandra College website and one will learn no end of fascinating things…
In our Mission Statement, the purpose and the ethos of the College is clearly stated. We endeavour to remain true to that characteristic spirit in everything we do in the College.
Alexandra College is a private, all girls, secondary school with an enrolment of 620 students. It is also a boarding school with a capacity for 170 boarders.The diverse backgrounds and nationalities of the students creates a wonderful web of relationship which lasts a lifetime.
And what does the Mission Statement tell us?
Alexandra College is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in
all areas of education. Our aim is to generate and maintain an
inclusive climate of learning within which every pupil is enabled
to develop and fulfil her own unique potential.
It is our hope that every student who leaves this College will
be equipped not only to make her own way in the world but
also to make her particular contribution to society and at the
same time to continue her lifelong learning process.
From the Quaker inspiration of Anne Jellicoe who founded the
College, and from the Church of Ireland dedication which supported,
enabled and still maintains the foundation.
we have inherited our commitment:
• to learn to think independently
• to tolerate and value diversity
• to respect ourselves and each other, and
• to be responsible for ourselves and to society
We aspire to fulfill this commitment by fostering an atmosphere
of respect, understanding and encouragement between
all who teach, work and learn in the College, so that the development
and contribution of every individual can be acknowledged,
and all can work together to benefit personal
growth and the common good.
The Alexandra College Association Constitution is also a good, if remarkably short, read:
The association is to be called the Alexandra College Association
of Parents and Teachers
1. To promote and develop the aims of Alexandra College.
2. To promote and develop communication and dialogue between
parents, teachers and Board of Management.
3. To provide representation on committees and a channel of
communication with the Board of Management.
4. To support the Principal, Deputy Principal and teaching staff in
the provision of a high standard of educational, intellectual and
social development for the pupils of the college.
5. To support the Board of Management in the provision of
educational facilities of a high standard.
6. To promote student welfare.
One will also read in the “History” section that:
Alexandra College was founded in 1866 to give a new sense of purpose to the education of young middle-class ladies in Ireland. The prevailing system did not provide young ladies with any opportunities for real academic involvement; nor did it prepare them for any engagement in public, social or academic affairs.
Educating women for a domestic role was regarded at the time as the essential objective of a “good” educational system. The system was largely in the hand of governesses who themselves lacked a grounding in mathematics, history, classics and philosophy.
Anne Jellicoe decided to address that inadequacy and put right the prevailing inequality against women. Her first idea was to open a College to educate governesses. This gave way to wider plan to provide a liberal education for young ladies that would sharpen their academic consciousness, and encourage them to take up ideas and issues that exercised the minds of the thinking men of the time!
Laudably honest in its position on social class – eh?
And not a word about such unpleasantness as the ability to pay the fees across the educational lifetime of an individual student. Or, indeed, what happens if a family falls on hard times.
I’m genuinely sorry for the girl at the centre of this but on one level it is difficult not to feel that, hard-hearted as it may appear to be, the school is entirely within its rights to eject her, whatever the details. These are fee-charging institutions. They make no pretence that they’re in this for love. No indeed. It’s money. Otherwise why charge the fees?
And we could also argue that the plight of the mother, now separated and ‘coping with the collapse of her business’ is nothing more than a contemporary morality tale. After all, no-one forced her to send her child to the school. This was her exercising her ‘choice’, a choice that was possible to her and not to many many others because she had the disposable income at the time to spend on education.
And in that context one could reasonably ask of the mother, what else did she expect? When education becomes a commodity, to be bought and sold, then it is entirely contingent on the ability of a purchaser to have the wherewithal to purchase.
That said, it’s a tad more complex than that. Justice would suggest that a child should sit her exams without stresses and Alexandra College has, as best one can judge from the reports handled this with a degree of sensitivity so lacking in common sense that you can only gaze in awe from the sidelines.
Beyond that though, the fee-charging schools, as seen at the Committee, make strenuous efforts to avoid any implication that pecuniary matters are at the heart of what is essentially a transaction – heaven forfend! It’s a service they provide, a service that is – so they imply – undifferentiated to that available elsewhere in the education system. Indeed this service is a vital additional element, although how and in what respect is never clearly articulated.
But our present woes are throwing up some of the contradictions in this stance. Here, after all, is a young child whose educational future, once so bright, is now clouded by the possibility that she will no longer attend a fee-charging institution. Now, if everything elsewhere is so rosy, if there is no particularly differentiation, other than – perhaps – some near intangible ‘cultural’ aspect one could reasonably enquire as to why … by the way, why am I slipping into a near 19th century style of ironic communication – it’s going to be prithee this and prithee that next… the parent is so exercised. Sure, her child will miss Alexandra College, but there’s a whole voluntary non-fee charging secondary sector out there to explore.
This is going to happen again and again and again, and a telling point made in the Irish Independent some years ago reveals some of the problems that lie ahead:
Enrolment at fee-paying schools has risen since the abolition of third-level fees, with parents who had previously set aside funds for college ploughing the money back into their children’s education at second-level.
Figures released by the Department of Education last year showed that the number of new pupils in south Dublin’s state schools had declined whilst enrolment in the area’s fee-paying schools had steadily risen.
As I say, I understand entirely the motivation that parents, any parent, brings to the feast as regards education. The wish for them to do as well or better is very powerful indeed and can overwhelm rationality (after all, €20,000 for a years fees? Precisely what sort of outcomes is that going to ‘guarantee’, even in the more nebulous area of social standing?). Parents often have been to the institutions they put their children through, there’s an acculturation process there.
But I have the feeling that just as with housing – and Conor of Dublin Opinion made this point elsewhere, that there is a delusion that people can essentially ‘bet the house’ on the market – the idea that it is possible to ‘invest’ on an individual basis in education and the facile idea that we – or those who can afford to – can all make ‘choices’ that have no down-side is being superseded by events.