I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue. It arises from a request by many constituents of mine, and many families around the country, for the Government to explain its policy on fee-charging schools. These constituents object to the recent decision by the Government to increase the pupil-teacher ratio in selected schools, which they feel have been singled out. They are referred to as fee-charging schools. There are 55 such schools in Ireland with more than 25,000 students currently attending them.
The Government is increasing the pupil-teacher ratio from 20:1 to 23:1 starting in September 2013. My constituents contend that the Labour Party is putting significant pressure on Fine Gael to increase that ratio further by 2015, given the publicly stated policy to withdraw all public funding from fee-charging schools.
The constituents have highlighted a number of areas of concern, including the mandate. Neither in the 2011 manifestos of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, nor in the programme for Government 2011-2016, are there references to an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for the small group of schools singled out for attention - as they contend - in such an inequitable manner. They have asked us to explain from whom the Fine Gael and Labour parties received their election mandate for these recent actions.
Under the heading "The Economics of Education", they point out that the independent report from PwC in 2011 concluded that there is a saving to the State for each student enrolled in a free-charging school. Without getting into the specifics, the key point is that the parents of students attending fee-paying schools reduce the cost to the State and the rest of the tax-paying population by contributing to the cost of educating their children.
If ten of the 55 schools were to close - which is not an unrealistic assumption, given the recent trend - that would affect 5,000 students. Can the Government indicate what would be the increased cost to the State over a six-year period, including salaries, capitation grants and other school financial supports? Bearing in mind that those students would transfer to schools with a pupil-teacher ratio of 20, what would be the cost if all 55 schools closed?
The Government has announced 275 major schools building projects as part of a €2 billion investment programme to address the 70,000 additional students coming through the system up to 2018. This includes 43 new and 65 large extensions to second-level schools. Given that the increased capacity being developed is not intended to accommodate students coming into the system due to the closure of these schools, can the Minister of State advise whether these factors are now being considered? What would be the potential shortfall in capacity, as well as the additional capital cost, if ten of the 55 schools closed?
The representations also cover employment. The 55 schools in the fee-paying sector employ approximately 600 additional teachers and 600 other persons across a range of services, including administration, catering, facilities management. That is beyond what would be employed in a non-fee charging school. This amounts to 1,200 valuable direct jobs and probably the same number in indirect employment in what is a damaged economy. These jobs are sustained through the fees paid by parents across all these schools. What is the policy in attempting to protect the employment of these people in the context of 430,000 unemployed on the live register? What has been the reaction of the teachers' unions to this policy direction which threatens their members' jobs?
These schools have their own facilities and share them with GAA clubs, community groups, and other neighbouring sports clubs. If these schools were to close it would make a very big dent in the amenities provided by them across the country.