Fee-Paying Schools: Discussion.

I welcome the following: Mr. Noel Merrick, president of the joint managerial body; Mr. Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the joint managerial body; Mr. Christopher Woods, principal of Wesley College; Mr. Gerry Foley, principal of Belvedere College; Mr. Ian Coombes, principal of Bandon Grammar School; and Sr. Eileen Randles from the Loreto Education Trust. The delegates will make a short presentation and respond to questions on the future role of fee paying schools in the education system, with specific reference to economically disadvantaged students and students who have intellectual or physical special needs. I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official, by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Noel Merrick

I thank the Chairman for inviting us to appear before the joint committee. We would be delighted to return at any time to discuss voluntary secondary schools and their contribution to education. I am accompanied by the following: Mr. Ferdia Kelly who is general secretary of the joint managerial body which represents 400 secondary schools; Sr. Eileen Randles from the Loreto Education Trust; Mr. Gerry Foley, principal of Belvedere College; Mr. Christopher Woods, principal of Wesley College; and Mr. Ian Coombes, principal of Bandon Grammar School. Without further ado, I ask Mr. Kelly to deliver the executive summary.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

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.

Each of the 400 voluntary secondary schools represented by the joint managerial body has published an admissions policy that complies fully with section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act 1998. Applications for enrolment to a voluntary secondary school, including the 56 fee charging schools, are processed in accordance with that school’s admissions policy. Article 42.1 of the Constitution gives protection to the family as the primary educator of a child and provides for parental choice in the selection of a school for him or her. Article 44.2.4° states legislation providing for State aid shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations. One of the objectives of the 1998 Act is to ensure parental choice.

The majority of Catholic secondary schools entered the free education scheme in 1967. In return, the management authorities of these schools received a tuition grant in lieu of the fee that had been levied by all voluntary secondary schools prior to 1967. Unfortunately, the tuition grant was pitched at a level significantly lower than the fee that had formerly been levied. The inequality created by this decision remains in place and has resulted in voluntary secondary schools in the free education scheme receiving annual State grant aid per pupil of, on average, €90 less than a community school and €200 less than a vocational school.

Minority faith schools faced a particular dilemma because boarding was essential if the needs of a dispersed population were to be catered for and this would require the charging of fees. The changes proposed in 1967 were highly significant and parents from minority communities were concerned that the schools which they had carefully built up would not be treated fairly. The number of schools in the minority sector declined as a result of mergers from 69 to the current 26. Such was the level of concern regarding minority faith schools that the Minister for Education at the time went to great lengths to ensure these schools were treated "favourably because of the nature of their problems", and made this clear in Dáil debates at the time.

Equitable treatment was achieved by placing all voluntary secondary schools from the minority faith sector in the free education scheme while continuing to allow them to charge fees. In particular, this meant that the per capita grant made available to all Catholic schools was paid en bloc to a committee, called the secondary education committee, representing the main Protestant churches, and this was to be dispersed to minority families in need of support so that fees could be paid. This has been called the block grant and remains in place.

Minority faith schools were given all grants that free education Catholic schools were entitled to. In others words, minority faith schools were treated as being in the free scheme.

I will now move forward from the introduction of the free education scheme to the present. Since the introduction of the free education scheme in 1967, all fee-charging schools are in receipt of payment of salaries for a quota of teachers. Historically this quota was established on the same basis across all post-primary schools. The quota figure for all post-primary schools for the past ten years has been calculated on the basis of a pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, of 18:1.

The 2009 budget created a two-tier approach to the calculation of the quota of teaching staffs in schools. The quota from the school year 2009-10, in other words from next September, will be calculated on the basis of a PTR of 19:1 in schools in the free education scheme and 20:1 for all fee-charging schools. This change will lead to a significant loss of State-funded teaching posts in schools which charge fees.

The 1998 Education Act is the most significant education legislation since the introduction of free education in the 1960s. The Act includes the requirement that each school will have a patron and a board of management that will protect the ethos of the individual school and that each school will be run in partnership with the community for which the school is provided. While society in general has become increasingly secular, each denominational school has been able to restate its purpose clearly.

Section 15(2)(d) of the Education Act 1998 places an obligation on each board of management to publish an admissions policy and to include references to the admission and participation of students with special educational needs. This section also ensures parents of their right to choose a school. A parent who makes an enquiry about enrolling his or her child in any recognised school in the State is entitled to receive a copy of the school’s admissions policy and have his or her application for a place for his other child to be processed in accordance with the terms of the above section of the Education Act.

If an application to have a child enrolled in a school is refused, a parent is entitled to appeal that decision to the secretary general of the Department of Education and Science under section 29 of the same Act. There is no evidence indicating any unusual patterns of section 29 appeals associated with any particular type or group of schools. The above pieces of legislation apply to all 400 voluntary secondary schools represented by the joint managerial body, including schools which charge fees. All schools which charge fees strictly adhere to the above legislation.

I will now deal with the two specific areas that were highlighted in the request for us to attend the joint committee: providing education to economically disadvantaged students and students who have intellectual or physical special needs. Parents choose to send their children to a particular school and to invest, in most cases at some personal sacrifice, in their children's education. They are exercising their right to choose and to make education a priority in their lives. It is a feature of the Irish post-primary education system that parents give careful consideration to the choice of post-primary schools for their children. The final decision on the choice of school is often a complex one influenced by a number of factors. It is one of the great strengths of the post-primary system that denominational and State schools are available to parents. By exercising their freedom in the choice of a school, parents are clearly indicating a desire for such a choice to continue to be available.

Minority faith schools receive a capitation grant in the form of a block grant for the support of needy pupils in the schools. As I have already mentioned, this process is organised through a central committee established for that purpose. Thus, the minority faith schools provide for the entire spectrum of their community including the economically disadvantaged.

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.

Catholic fee-charging schools must employ learning support teachers from their own resources to support students who require learning support, as the Department refuses to provide an allocation of teachers for learning support to these schools as in all other schools. Many fee-charging schools supplement special needs resource hours through the employment of additional teachers to support students with special educational needs.

All voluntary secondary schools are forced into significant fund-raising as a result of the serious discrepancy in funding received from the State. This is a historical feature based on the level of tuition grants set at the time of the introduction of the free education scheme and the failure of successive Governments to address this issue in the intervening years.

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 2009 budget has had a major impact on all schools. It must be recognised that the effects of such cutbacks will create major difficulties for all voluntary secondary schools. The severity of the cutbacks is such that it threatens the future viability of a number of voluntary secondary schools, both free education and fee-charging.

From next September, schools that charge fees are set to experience a serious staffing reduction from the Department of Education and Science without any reference to the circumstances of each school. It must be noted that fee-charging schools are important private employers in the local community. This is especially true in the 34 boarding schools around the country. The 2009 budget will undoubtedly result in redundancies in these schools.

Following the introduction of free education in this State, minority faith schools continued to charge fees in line with the needs of the community being served. While each school existed to serve the needs of its own community, each school very consciously welcomed pupils of other faiths. The purpose of each minority school remains simple: to provide an appropriate education for children from each respective community whether Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Religious Society of Friends or Jewish.

Subsequent Ministers for Education and Science have continued to recognise the need to provide State support for minority faith schools, and have pointed to the dispersed and scattered Protestant population as a particular reason for this support. The 2009 budget fundamentally changed the way the State views and treats minority faith schools. While the block grant remains in place, all minority faith schools in the voluntary sector in effect have been removed from the free education scheme. While the Minister has argued that the maintenance of the block grant sees to the needs of poorer Protestants, the removal of grants and the changes in teacher allocation will mean either a reduction in the quality of education offered or an increase in fees paid by parents. Either way, those from the minority community who wish to send their children to an appropriate school are now singularly disadvantaged.

For a Methodist, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland or Quaker parent, the issue of choice of schools of a particular ethos is paramount. Indeed, in rural Ireland there is often no choice. Sending a student to board in an appropriate school is what must be done, and paying for boarding is part of this. For some needy Protestants there is block grant support through the secondary education committee. For other Protestant parents there is no support, simply an expectation that they should pay. This is not equal treatment by any standards. Such a difference in treatment is difficult to imagine in a republic which seeks to support minorities. It is precisely what the then Minister, Donogh O'Malley, sought to avoid when introducing the free education scheme more than 40 years ago. The joint managerial body, in representing all voluntary secondary schools, raises this point in relation to minority faith schools to highlight that the 2009 budget was a blunt instrument which has had a major impact on all voluntary secondary schools, including the fee-charging group.

Ireland is blessed with an internationally renowned primary and post-primary education system. All 400 voluntary secondary schools are part of this high quality education system. Our Constitution and legislation enshrine the right of parents to the choice of school for their children. The right of religious organisations to promote denominational educational education is also protected in legislation. All fee-charging schools are denominational in character and the trustees of these schools have committed to the provision of education at both free education and fee-charging levels.

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.

It must also be noted that the 56 fee-paying schools do not operate on the same funding playing pitch because of the difference in capitation, capital arrangements and pupil-teacher ratios. I recognise the work of such schools in the post-primary school system. That being said, it is correct to scrutinise the admissions policies of such schools because this is an issue of public policy under the Education Act and a matter of comment and concern.

What percentage of the children attending the 56 fee-paying schools come from economically disadvantaged communities, to use the term cited in Mr. Kelly's presentation? Does the delegation have this information to hand? While Mr. Kelly indicated that bursaries and so forth are provided, raw data on the number of children who come from economically disadvantaged communities who attend the 56 schools would be useful. The 21 minority faith schools are slightly different because in those cases the secondary education committee of the Church of Ireland provides the block grant to children from disadvantaged communities to enable them to attend these schools. If the information I seek was available, it would allay some of the concern that not enough is being done to help children from disadvantaged communities to attend fee-paying schools.

Does the delegation have information on the number of children with special needs who attend the 56 fee-paying schools? All members have an interest in having this information. One hears anecdotally that if a person has a special need or comes from a disadvantaged community, a fee-paying school is not the choice for him or her. There is an obligation on the representative groups present to allay these concerns among members of the joint committee and the public.

On admissions policy, which is governed by statute, is it acceptable that parents must take 11, 12 and 13 year old children to interviews for some of the fee-paying schools? While I understand this is not common practice across the 56 schools, I am interested to learn whether such interviews are a widespread feature of admissions policy.

On the 21 minority faith schools, as I stated, the secondary education committee, SEC, offers a block grant provided by the State to help economically disadvantaged Protestant children attend these schools. Is this fund in surplus and, if so, by how much? While I am aware of the particular hardship which will be brought upon many rural Protestant fee-paying schools over the next year or thereabouts as a result of the budget decision, there is public concern that moneys ring-fenced for these schools have not been spent. Members of the public have a right to know if that is the position and, if so, at what level the surplus stands.

Usually, Deputies and Senators first ask questions and witnesses respond. However, before asking other members to contribute, it would be useful to shed light on the questions raised by Deputy Hayes on the percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending fee-paying schools. If the delegation does not have access to these figures, perhaps Mr. Foley, Mr. Coombes and Mr. Woods will provide figures from their respective schools.

Mr. Gerry Foley

I am unable answer all the Deputy's questions but I will deal with them on the basis of my knowledge of working with one of the Jesuit schools. The percentage of children with special educational needs is much easier to address because we receive support in this area. As noted in the submission, we receive resource hours but do not receive learning support.

It is a public perception that our schools do not have students with special educational needs. Currently, 10% of our intake has defined special educational needs while some other students have multiple rather than defined needs. The 10% figure does not always include students with physical disability. We also have students with physical disability in the college, some of whom have a full wheelchair necessity while others have another physical disability. We do not maintain statistics on this because the issue is not pertinent and does not make a difference in terms of intake or provision. In terms of special educational needs, therefore, the figure is 10%.

Is it the case that students have a psychological assessment through the National Educational Psychological Service?

Mr. Gerry Foley

Yes, they have such assessments. This is a difficult issue because the figure varies and is more than 10% of intake at times. We do not have this information prior to admission. It usually emerges when students have been placed and a psychologist's report is provided.

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.

Mr. Christopher Woods

I wish to correct one slight error in something Deputy Hayes said. He referred to the secondary education committee, SEC. That is a very important body because the minority faith schools consider it as the fundamental plank through which we accommodate all socio-economic groups. That is a critically important issue for us to get across to the committee. Our schools exist precisely to serve the entire socio-economic spectrum for the communities we were established to serve. There is an obligation on us to take in people from whatever economic background and the SEC grant facilitates that, but it is not just for the Church of Ireland community. That is a common misconception. The SEC grant is also for Methodists, Presbyterians and the range of——

I know that the SEC grant is not just for the Church of Ireland community but it is administered by the Church of Ireland.

Mr. Christopher Woods

No it is not. The grant is administered by a committee that is composed of representatives of various churches, and the committee has made it its business to ensure there is a disbursement among a wide variety of people.

At this stage it is possibly prudent of me to answer the Deputy's final question on the suggestion that there is some level of withholding funds. I am on the SEC but I am aware that in the past when the capitation grant was not increased and, similarly, the amount of money going to the SEC for disbursement among needy Protestants was not increased, the applications in any one year for that money increased. There was an onus on committee members to ensure proper management of those funds and to ensure that from year to year there was money there. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and his officials have jumped on that as some kind of suggestion of impropriety, at which most people involved in our sector are taken aback. Deputy Hayes's specific question was about where the money is. The money has been disbursed to all of the schools in proportion to the numbers of students in receipt of grants.

In our case in Wesley College, 25% of our pupils are supported in one form or another by various grants, not just the SEC grant but also by past pupils and fundraising. One can see that even in south County Dublin there is a significant level of support given to families who might find it difficult to attend. That whole structure is important to get across because one will find in many of the minority faith schools that percentage is significantly higher with the effect that many pupils get free fees and free education, as Donogh O'Malley envisaged the system would provide for many pupils. We are very proud of the way in which the minority faith schools support our entire community.

Figures for special needs are no different in our schools. We were discussing that just before the meeting commenced. I compared my school with the president of the association in the free scheme and we have almost exactly the same allocation of hours. I asked how many hours he was allocated by the Department and he said 80. We have 67.5 hours and we supplement that, which gives an idea that the level between comparable schools is very similar. Mr. Coombes will probably want to contribute on that point but he can speak for himself.

It is a common misconception, but of the 21 schools I am not aware of any school that conducts interviews because we do not exclude on the basis of economic disadvantage or any other criteria such as special needs. We simply take people in on the basis of the admissions policies that are all published.

I will go quickly to Mr. Coombes. A vote has been called in the Dáil. We will keep going until the bell stops at which point we have four minutes remaining.

Mr. Ian Coombes

The disbursement of the SEC grants was in line with the number of applicants who had been successful in the previous year, so all that fund is now gone. The fund was held also for another reason, namely, that during the year people often fell on hard times. That is a big factor in this current year where a number of people have lost their jobs and their circumstances have suddenly changed dramatically. The SEC was often able to help families during the course of the year.

It was also the case that quite a few people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas had genuine problems in filling out their application forms. Very often they had to be sat down by the school principal or secretary to go through the form. I had such a case last Friday where quite a bit of help was required. That form was nine months late. In previous years the SEC could help a family in that situation. Now that those funds are completely spent, the school has to hold a reserve to provide assistance itself.

While I agree with my colleague that the SEC has made a massive difference and the funding from the State is very appreciated, it is not the whole story. Just like the Jesuits, the Loreto nuns or any of the other groupings, the trustees of our schools, the parents associations and past pupils associations have also contributed to ensure that children in need can have a free education. In our school the other day we totalled up the amounts given to families of larger size or special difficulties through our trustees, various charitable bodies and church organisations. The total amount provided last year to support need was €120,000. That meant that the education for approximately one in six children was completely free. In many cases that included their books and uniforms.

Before going to Sr. Randles, I will allow Deputy Quinn to contribute as he must leave for the vote.

I thank the Chairman for that facility but I would prefer to contribute after the vote. I do not know whether it is the Chairman's intention to continue.

That is fair enough. What I propose then is to invite Sr. Randles to speak. In two or three minutes I will ask Senator Healy Eames to chair the meeting, which will continue with the Senators present. Senators may ask questions and the Deputies will then return and ask further questions.

Sr. Eileen Randles

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.

Why does Sr. Randles think that perception exists?

Sr. Eileen Randles

Because of the media.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

All admissions policies for the 730 recognised post-primary schools in this country must be published. They are part of the public record and are available for scrutiny. One can seek the admissions policy of any school to which one wishes to send one's child. One can scrutinise that and ensure that the policy has been published in compliance with the Education Act and with equality legislation. One can challenge any perceived lack of compliance through the section 29 process, which is open to every parent. That is an important point to put on the record.

I wish to ask Sr. Randles whether her comment related to Loreto schools or all of the 400 schools.

Sr. Eileen Randles

As far as we are aware to all schools, including Loreto schools.

Mr. Noel Merrick

Deputy Hayes referred to interviews but that is common in many schools post-enrolment where children are invited to meet the principal, deputy principal or guidance teacher to have a chat with them and get to know them. That is very common in the non-fee paying sector. If the interviews were pre-enrolment that would be a different situation altogether.

Sr. Eileen Randles

It is time-consuming for the principals but it is something that is highly appreciated by parents because they feel a personal link is being established before the youngster comes to the school between the parents and the principal of the school.

I invite Senator Fidelma Healy Eames to take the Chair.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames took the Chair.

Good morning everyone. I invite Mr. Foley to contribute before I take questions from the two Senators.

Mr. Gerry Foley

I have one brief comment. I was asked why that perception exists with regard to academic selection for schools. It is not a million years since I attended a Christian Brothers school and that was the practice there.

To what practice is Mr. Foley referring?

Mr. Gerry Foley

The practice of sitting an assessment test for placement within a class. I was recently obliged to deal with a past pupil who left the school in 1996 who could not believe that there was not an entrance examination because it was previously the practice to hold such examinations. He was adamant that this was still the practice. However, what he was referring to was that most schools have an assessment procedure which comes into play following the offer of places to students. Even though students have already obtained places in schools, this assessment continues to be perceived as an entrance test. Some parents actually refer to it as an entrance examination.

How many of the schools represented at this meeting stream children on the basis of the results of these assessments? Does Mr. Foley's school engage in streaming?

Mr. Gerry Foley

No. We have mixed-ability classes.

Mr. Christopher Woods

The assessment is designed to ensure that mixed-ability classes are put together in a more scientific manner. We make an assessment, consider the results and then place a certain percentage of outstanding pupils and so on in each class.

I do quite an amount of work in voluntary secondary schools. Mr. Ferdia Kelly is general secretary of the joint managerial board. There are some 400 voluntary secondary schools throughout the country. What percentage of these stream children into high, middle and low classes? I am aware of certain voluntary secondary schools which have five levels of classes. What percentage of such secondary schools stream as a result of the assessment tests that have replaced entrance examinations?

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I cannot provide a percentage in that regard. However, the purpose of the assessment tests is to assist schools in identifying each student's learning ability and possible learning difficulties in order to cater properly for his or her needs. In other words, they are used to assist in providing — as schools are obliged to do — children with an appropriate education. During the past decade there has been a substantial move away from streaming. Schools use a variety of approaches.

However, streaming still exists.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

It may exist in certain elements of a particular school's cycle. However, most, if not all, schools of which I am aware have an element of mixed ability and of banding. Schools take various approaches to the grouping of students and they review these on a continual basis — I have seen this through the school development planning process — in order to provide the most appropriate education for the cohort of students that may be enrolled at a particular time. Over a period, a dynamic will emerge in a school whereby the cohort of students and the needs relating thereto may change. Schools continually review and change their practices.

I accept that. I understand what is involved with banding and what happens with regard to placing students in pass and honours classes. Do any of the four schools represented at this meeting stream pupils in first year?

Mr. Christopher Woods

I am not aware of any school in our sector that streams.

Mr. Ian Coombes

We do not stream on the basis of assessment tests. As my colleagues have stated, we use assessment tests in order to try to achieve an even mixture of children across the class groups in a particular year. Not one of the three voluntary secondary schools in the town in which I live operate like this. However, they all have slightly different versions of the assessment process and of the banding process that applies in second and third year.

Sr. Eileen Randles

To add to what Mr. Kelly said, some members may be aware that this type of discussion frequently occurs at staff meetings in schools. One often adjusts one's approach and one's system to the needs of the pupils. Those needs change constantly because a new cohort of students enters the school each year. Some people — no one present I hasten to add — talk about schools as if they produce boxes and that all they need do is use the same system each year to produce more boxes. However, every year is different. Staff change their approaches and adopt new ways of operating. The jury is out with regard to streaming versus mixed ability.

I am a member of the boards of management of three schools. The first of these is fee-paying, the second is a voluntary DEIS school and the third is a community school in west Tallaght. In all three there are mixed-ability classes.

Mr. Gerry Foley

There are seven Jesuit schools — one special educational needs school, three fee-paying schools, two non-fee paying schools and one all-Irish school, which is situated in Galway. Belvedere College, of which I am principal, has not had streaming for many years.

It is amazing that our guests are stating that streaming does not exist.

Mr. Noel Merrick

The school of which I am principal in Naas is non-fee paying and has 800 students. We abandoned any form of banding in 1990. The school has, therefore, had mixed-ability classes for almost 20 years. The position is the same with all the schools in the surrounding area. In the four counties with which I am familiar, there may be one school out of 30 which still observes traditional practices.

I am delighted by what our guests are saying. While, as has been stated, streaming has attractions, it is also strongly associated with poor self-esteem among pupils. The latter occurs because weaker children are usually banded together in the lower classes. Students are aware that this is the case.

Mr. Noel Merrick

I visited staff rooms in other schools to inquire about the notion of changing from A to B. Most people would say that it is better to engage in gradual change. In other words, to move first to banding before proceeding to mixed-ability classes. Every school that I visited in County Kildare has adopted the mixed-ability approach.

I am fascinated by the discussion that has just taken place. I attended the same school as the Acting Chairman and, as far as I can recall, streaming of a certain kind took place there. I recall there being assessments and that people were placed in A, B and C classes. I also recall the authorities at the school working extremely hard to minimise gossip with regard to differences between different class groups.

I take it everyone agrees that schooling should be about delivering the best educational and vocational outcome for each student. In such circumstances, I am extremely interested in Sr. Randles's assertion that the jury is out on the question of streaming versus mixed ability. The tone of the debate to date has been that streaming is some form of apartheid and should not be tolerated. Whereas I agree that perceptions are important, I am of the view that substance is much more important. The questions must, therefore, revolve around whether it works. If it delivers better outcomes for students, is it not then a question of managing perceptions and ensuring that, within the education system, we should emphasise the importance of different types of education and intelligence and build students up in that way? If streaming would be better for children who might be termed "academically strong", then it should be countenanced. In the same way, other children might benefit from a different kind of focus. If, as Sr. Randles states, the jury is out, are we in danger of having a visceral reaction against streaming and doing what might not be in the best interest of students?

Sr. Eileen Randles

Senator Healy Eames addressed that matter in recognising that there are different practices at various stages for almost every pupil in every school. She also acknowledged her understanding of the difference between pass and honours classes, particularly in the senior cycle.

It is more the early years that are at issue. Students are naturally banded and streamed as a result of their results in the junior certificate. To give him is due, I believe Senator Mullen was referring to first and second years, which are formative in nature.

Sr. Eileen Randles

I have worked with staff in many schools and it is my experience that teachers' major concern relates to the perceptions of children themselves and their parents. There is no doubt — the literature proves this — that they often live down to their teachers' expectations. Schools engage in all sorts of tricks in order to try to avoid that perception, while always trying to find the method best suited to the needs of the pupils in any given year. There will be various different approaches used, even within the same year.

What does Sr. Randles mean when she says schools have all types of tricks?

Sr. Eileen Randles

They use different names, and band, stream and have mixed ability for some classes. From a policy approach, I understand at the junior level they favoured one because of its benefits to young people from the point of view of their own self image and so on. The confidence they build is the mixed ability.

Mr. Ian Coombes

One key thing all educators found is that as children get older and begin to look at their careers and so on, and dealing with those who have intellectual difficulties, the choice and range of subjects available to them to follow their multiple intelligences into those areas is absolutely vital. This is one of the things which is now under threat as a result of the budget and cutbacks, and differentially so in our schools.

It is one of the areas where, as a small rural school — there are many others like us — we have had this problem for the last 30 or 40 years. We have had to deal with the entire cohort of people from our community and therefore the school had to provide things such as woodwork, construction studies and various other subjects which, in due course, on the basis of our numbers alone the State could not allow, but we had an obligation to those children.

This is one of the reasons that, traditionally, the schools we represent have charged fees. That reason and boarding were the two significant factors. That reality has not gone away and is still there. It is one of the factors which, with the cutbacks, threatens many of these schools and threatens their very existence.

I return to the area of special education needs, which we touched on briefly earlier. It is stated in the presentation that applications from parents with a child with special educational needs are processed as per the school's admissions policy. Sr. Randles referred to people getting places before there is an awareness of a problem. Is it not the case that during the whole interview process, which might take place after an entrance examination, that there are many subtle ways being used by schools to encourage children with special needs to go to another school in the town?

Anecdotally, I am hearing terms such as, "This is not the school for your child. I think your child would thrive better in the school down the road" and they are discouraged from continuing with the application process. As well as the anecdotal evidence, I have also had it verified to some degree by principals of public schools or community colleges in a town in my constituency, who complain about the principals in the voluntary sector who engage in this practice and feel these schools are not pulling their weight in this area.

Mr. Christopher Woods

There is a perception out there and it is important to address it. Regarding the 21 schools and, in particular, the school I represent, which is the only school owned by the Methodist church in Ireland, they are our number 1 category. I would not like to suggest that every single Methodist or any pupil from a Church of Ireland family or anybody else we give preferential treatment to in terms of our admissions policy is a high flier. They simply are not.

We give admissions to all of those people from such communities in accordance with our admissions policy without reference in any way whatsoever. I am confident the same pertains in all of our 21 schools. We do not interview, have any entrance exams or seek to deter pupils in any way because they may or may not have special needs or for any other reason. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and I hear the suggestion, as I do sometimes from teachers who work in different schools, that the grass is always greener somewhere else. The perception is that somebody else is never pulling their weight.

There may be schools who do that but they may in be the voluntary scheme, as well as those in the fee-paying scheme. With the obligation we have as minority faith schools to cater for that community, it would simply not be acceptable, in terms of the reasons we were founded, to exclude people.

Mr. Gerry Foley

On the question of special educational needs, I will stick to what I know. Our school is oversubscribed. There are many more people applying. Our admission policy is on the web for everybody to see. Section 29 is not an onerous thing for people to do, they appeal the decision. There are as many high fliers not getting a place as there are children with special needs not getting a place. It is not a reference point for us. That has been the situation for some time. I can give an example. A family with three boys could not be guaranteed that they would all be academically high flying children. The natural reality is that they will not be. If the policy is to take brothers, one will end up admitting children with special educational needs.

The area of special educational needs has burgeoned only recently, in terms of the identification of special educational needs. In terms of how one would differentiate, I do not see how one would be very successful or why one would be so keen to be successful in differentiating——

In the case of Belvedere College, are the children interviewed before they are offered a place?

Mr. Gerry Foley

Not all of them. The practice——

Are children interviewed sometimes?

Mr. Gerry Foley

The practice, which had been in place going back some time, was changed from interview to meeting because there was an open evening, which many people attended, and there was then a major questioning session afterwards which went on forever and ever.

Does Mr. Foley meet some children before they are offered a place?

Mr. Gerry Foley

Yes, particularly parents who are asking questions. They may say we state religion is very important in the school, but they may not practice the religion or one parent may not be Catholic and they ask if they are automatically precluded.

The perception of the person on the street is that, for many fee paying schools, the address from which the child comes and the occupation of the parents are the most important things. I want Mr. Foley to clarify that point.

Mr. Gerry Foley

I categorically state that is not true.

That is in the public record here today. If Mr. Foley can categorically state that, it is perfect.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I will pick up on Senator Ryan's comment on voluntary secondary schools in general and the perception that is out there. The Senator mentioned a particular town in his constituency——

I was discussing solutions with principals of the other schools.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I will address that now. I often hear the opposite is happening. The principals I work with have their own comments about it and it goes back to Mr. Wood's comment on the far side of the hill always being greener. The substantive point about admissions policies is that they are all in the public arena to be scrutinised and ensure that a parent is entitled to be treated fairly, according to the policy. If a parent is unhappy, he or she can pursue that issue through the section 29 process. The key point——

The section 29 process has been the bane of parents and schools' lives. We know section 29 is there but that does not mean it is working effectively. Can Mr. Kelly comment on that?

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

Can the Acting Chairman explain the question?

It is a long process. I accept all schools have admissions policies but I also know of many parents who tear their hair out having to go through the section 29 process to get their child into a particular school.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

The section 29 process is open and transparent. If a parent has difficulty managing the process the National Educational Welfare Board, through the EWOs, is available to support them through it. I have not seen any report which suggests the section 29 process is not working. It is available and it is working. The process leads through three stages, and parents are supported and guided in this regard. Critically, there is an obligation on the school to ensure that parents are fully familiar with the section 29 process and to make them aware of how to follow through on the process.

What I hear from parents is that they are stressed out as a result of the process because it is so lengthy. It comes up on the agenda of many teachers' union meetings as well. Section 29 needs to be reviewed and refined because, as Senator Mullen said, the school must provide an appropriate education for each child, and the first thing in this regard is to accept the child.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

We are saying that our schools — all 400 of them — are open to accepting each and every child as per the admissions policy, and if parents are unhappy with that the school will inform them and guide them to the section 29 process.

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?

Deputy Paul Gogarty took the Chair.

Sr. Eileen Randles

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.

In terms of integration of children with special learning needs, we have had children with visual impairment and physical disabilities, and we put in a lift ourselves for these. What we are trying to find out is the needs of a particular child so we can set about finding the resources. Catholic fee-paying schools, as we said in our submission, will not get a learning support teacher from the Department, so it is a matter of looking for hours and providing additional help. In the case of the visually impaired youngster, we made sure facilities such as ramps and lifts were put in place at our own expense. It is complex. There is a human person in the middle of it and we work on the basis of the needs of the particular child. Having a section in our enrolment policy about children with special needs is in no way intended to exclude them but is to ensure we can serve their needs.

Mr. Noel Merrick

Senator Ryan mentioned subtle practices to discourage parents from applying to particular schools. I have been the principal of a non-fee-paying school for 17 years and in all that time I have never suggested to anybody that he or she would be better served in another school. We were set up by the Christian Brothers to do our very best for everybody who came in the door. We have a problem in that we are over-subscribed so we need some sort of system, such as a first come first served system or a random system. With regard to our school and my neighbouring school, the Convent of Mercy in Naas, which is a traditional town in the midlands, I can guarantee there is no subtle practice of telling anybody he or she would be better served elsewhere. I would decry such a practice in any school.

Sr. Eileen Randles

Senator Healy Eames raised a point about the youngsters' addresses or the professions of their parents. In the schools with which I am familiar, we have had over the years a growing practice of parents queueing to enrol their children, because it was first come first served, and when they began queueing around 48 hours before the appointed time we decided it was time to call a halt. It is now random selection, and I must tell members that the parents dislike it intensely. They had some control over the queueing — they could make sure they were there, give each other tickets, go for Chinese meals and so on — but they have no control over the random selection, and there are some very unfortunate results. For example, a youngster living in the house next to the school did not get in. Addresses, professions, where they come from or who they are is of absolutely no import and will not get them further up the queue.

Sr. Randles is speaking about the Loreto Education Trust.

Sr. Eileen Randles

Yes, but I know that is the system in many schools.

I call Deputy Quinn, the lead spokesperson for the Labour Party, who has been waiting to speak.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. I am sorry for the disruption but I am sure there was an interesting dialogue on which we will be able to catch up later. 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.

I return to the question of bursaries, as Mr. Foley referred to them, or scholarships, and the 10% quota. However, first I wish to mention something more fundamental. Since the foundation of the State, the right of parents to choose a school for their children that reflects their ethos has been enshrined in Article 42 of the Constitution, and we have gone out of our way — rightly so, given the history of this island — to represent minority faiths, notwithstanding the current difficulties that budget 2009 clearly imposed. We could discuss that in some detail, but that is not the topic of today's conversation. I wish to raise the issue of the largest and fastest growing minority faith, or non-faith, on this island, which has no statutory recognition at secondary level. I refer to the people who send their children to Educate Together schools because it is the ethos of their choice.

Mr. Merrick referred to the growing school population at primary level, with some 500,000 pupils at present and probably another 100,000 in the next ten years, all of whom will require access to the secondary school system. While there is capacity in many of the 730 secondary schools, some of them are overloaded and are thus forced into a system of pupil selection. Ideally, these schools would like to accept all applicants, including the child living next door, but are unable to do so.

One of the problems at primary level is that we now have a category of citizens who are compulsory Catholics because the local school, as a denominational primary school under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church, rightly says it is obliged to ration places. This may also be the case with, for example, a Church of Ireland school. My constituency of Dublin South-East has the largest percentage population of non-Catholics — to use that horrible phrase — in the State. Denominational schools of all categories must ration their places. They do so by requiring parents to produce a utility bill as proof of residence in the area and a baptismal certificate to indicate the child is of the particular denomination. Are the delegates of the view that the application by Educate Together to provide a secondary school for its pupils, which has been with the Department of Education and Science since December 2007, should be treated in exactly the same manner, under Article 42 of the Constitution, as applications by constituent member organisations?

That is a pertinent point. We discussed this issue with departmental officials at the last committee meeting. The Minister is due to attend a meeting of the committee on 7 May, followed by representatives of Educate Together and the VEC management body on 20 May. The delegates are not obliged to answer the Deputy's question. However, we are interested in their view on Educate Together's application to establish a school at second level. This issue is part of the discourse in which we have been engaged in recent weeks.

Sr. Eileen Randles

As part of the position I held for ten years, I represented Educate Together's concerns on many committees. I have worked closely with that body on many occasions. For the past six years, I have chaired the new schools advisory committee, NSAC, of the Department of Education and Science. This is the committee to which all applications to open a new primary school the following September had to be submitted. The NSAC is currently in abeyance and the selection criteria are being reviewed. The members of the committee prompted that review.

I am very much in touch with the concerns of Educate Together. I understand its wish to extend its reach into the post-primary sector. However, I anticipate it will find it difficult to obtain sanction from the Department of Education and Science in this regard, notwithstanding constitutional rights. This is because, whatever about the de facto situation, the community, comprehensive and vocational schools are deemed, de jure, to be multidenominational. Therefore, I anticipate that Educate Together has a high mountain to climb in achieving its aim. We will not oppose its application and we respect its wish to continue at post-primary what it has successfully achieved in the 56 primary schools it currently runs. The same issue arises for Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna LánGhaeilge which has 57 primary and three secondary schools under its patronage. I understand it too would like to increase its reach at post-primary level. It has at least taken the first leap in this regard whereas Educate Together has not yet done so.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I fully support what Sr. Eileen has said. We have a concern in regard to the selection of patrons or trustees for second level schools because of the absence of an open and transparent process for that selection. In other words, it is generally announced that a school will open in a particular area under the patronage of a particular body. Of late, it has been under the patronage of the VECs. We have no difficulty with any particular patrons because we support the concept of parental choice. The difficulty we have is that there does not seem to be a process through which a patron can pursue an interest in opening a new school. We have published a paper calling for the introduction of such a system and have discussed the issue with the Minister. Once that process is in place, we will fully support all patrons having an opportunity, if they are so interested, to submit an application and have it processed.

Representatives from the forward planning unit in the Department attended a previous meeting of the committee at which they confirmed without reservation that there is a net need for additional post-primary accommodation in growing areas notwithstanding the existing complement of 730 schools, including in Sr. Eileen's own area of Lucan and mid-west Dublin where land is already set aside for the provision of additional post-primary facilities. Many of those involved in Educate Together do not accept the assertion that the VECs are multidenominational. In particular, they do not regard as such the schools that have emerged out of the merger of the Brothers, the Sisters and the tech — the typical configuration in an average town. In such cases, members of the management of the two former denominational schools often understandably sought, as a quid pro quo, to have part of their ethos reflected in the new merged school and that they should be guaranteed representation on the board. With all due respect to Sr. Eileen, such a school is not the same as a multidenominational school. Incidentally, such arrangements have offered a happy experience for parents who want to make that choice. However, it is not the choice of the largest growing minority, namely, non-believers or those representing what could be referred to as secular Ireland. I am very interested in Sr. Eileen’s comments on this.

Sr. Eileen Randles

To clarify, I said that these schools were multidenominational in a de jure sense. What they are in the de facto sense, how they have emerged and how they are perceived may be another matter.

Sr. Eileen's point is noted. The departmental officials said as much and we have indicated our dissatisfaction with that opinion.

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 — 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.

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 different.

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 outturn 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 paper in junior certificate than an A on a pass paper. We do not have to push hard because parents want it.

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 socioeconomic 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.

I am talking about fee-paying schools.

Mr. Christopher Woods

We are not private schools. We are State supported recognised schools.

Mr. Christopher Woods


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.

Fee-paying schools.

Mr. Christopher Woods

Schools do not pay fees.

Of course. They charge fees.

Mr. Noel Merrick

We are all voluntary secondary schools.

If a parent makes a particular choice a fee may attach to that choice. That is the point I wished to make.

Am I to understand that the fund, which was in surplus, has been completely disbursed and that there is no surplus in the fund?

Mr. Christopher Woods

That is absolutely guaranteed. I must stress something which is very important. Deputy Conlon has referred to parental choice and Deputy Quinn stressed parental choice with regard to the minority who would like to send their children to Educate Together schools. Minorities should be supported by the State, whether they want to send their children to Educate Together schools, gaelscoileanna — an area which no one has mentioned — or to a minority faith school. No one is kicking up a fuss about the manner in which minorities are being treated. Deputy Quinn stated this is a growing minority. Is it to be treated in the same manner as the minority faith schools? In other words, it is not really a group recognised as worthy of support. That is what Ministers——

Perhaps I can answer that question. The group has had an application in since December 2007 but has not as yet obtained a response.

Mr. Christopher Woods

The agreement Donogh O'Malley made with the minority faith schools is being slowly dismantled. Reference was made to death by a thousand cuts. There are many ways one can damage a school. If we are to treat minorities in a manner that is equitable, as Donogh O'Malley sought to do, we cannot then say they are entitled to fewer teachers. There would be uproar if this happened in the Educate Together or gaelscoileanna sector. If parental choice is to mean anything it must mean the State supports minorities in the same way as it supports the majority population in terms of the provision of teachers. That is an issue that has been allowed to die off.

If Members are serious about special needs, treating people equally and mixing classes so that all students are dealt with on the same level and if they really mean that all citizens of this State should be treated equitably and not denied entrance into particular schools based on particular practices then these schools should receive an equal amount of State support and teachers, which has not happened. I would like if more people in authority were to state that this is wrong.

To clarify matters, the fund was kept in reserve to ensure no minority faith family would be left without provision in terms of support in the payment of fees as all such schools are fee-charging. The fund was retained to ensure proper accounting practices were adhered to. It is now being used as a stick with which to beat minority faith schools. It is appalling that the Minister would do this. The secondary education committee has disbursed the fund and it no longer exists. Possibly, that is the way the Minister believes the funding issue should be addressed. There is no surplus. We have no reserve left.

Leaving aside the Second Stage speeches, the net issue is that there is no surplus.

Mr. Christopher Woods

There is no surplus because the Minister requested it be disbursed.

Has Mr. Woods been led to believe——

Deputy Conlon has another question.

I am glad that point has been clarified. Some of the minority schools set up in particular areas were established to accommodate parents who wanted their children educated in a particular manner. Many of those schools now include pupils from all denominations and are not necessarily fulfilling the obligation for which they were originally set up. I am aware of schools in my constituency in which are enrolled pupils from the Roman Catholic and Methodist faiths.

Mr. Christopher Woods

They are fulfilling the role for which they were originally set up. The Education Act 1998 does not allow us to turn away pupils whose parents wish to send them to our schools.

That is the point I am making.

Mr. Christopher Woods

Our sector has always welcomed applications from whomever may wish to attend our schools.

I am making the point that those schools have become more inclusive in allowing many denominations to come through their doors.

It is stated on page 5 that the removal of grants might mean a reduction in the quality of education offered. Perhaps Mr. Woods would explain what is meant in this regard.

Mr. Ian Coombes

Perhaps I can answer that question. There were well over 40 schools in place prior to rationalisation of the sector at the time of free education in the 1960s. This was then whittled down to 26, five of which eventually became comprehensive schools, State paid schools, under the patronage of various bishops and communities. Outside of those five areas, two in Dublin, one in Wicklow, one in Donegal and one in Cork city the only option available in other counties was a fee paying school. In regard to the school in Bandon, County Cork, it was mooted at the time that there should be a west Cork Protestant managed comprehensive. That never happened. The projections from the Department were that it would never reach a critical mass in size, it would not be viable and, providing the subject range required in the comprehensive was not economic. Our trustees, the Incorporated Society, have four schools around the country, including Louth, Sligo, Cork and Kilkenny. All of these schools are thriving because the participation level of the various Protestant communities within the schools has dramatically increased due to the block grant and other bursaries. We are delighted to welcome children from all communities. This was all happening at the time of the Northern troubles and so on and each of these schools took a conscious decision to ensure the school was not a Protestant only school. Inclusiveness is important. Children should grow up in a microcosm of the State in which they are going to live and it is important this happens.

The question was asked what would be the impact on schools, many of which are quite small. To provide the breadth of education that whole community requires from the child wishing to be a mechanic to the child wishing to be a doctor and so on, requires us to supplement them. The State could not be expected to do so. Protestant parents have signed up to this deal for the past 40 years. They understand the need to help the State in this regard. Now, because of the withdrawal of the grants and the less advantageous pupil-teacher ratio issue, schools are under enormous pressure to continue doing so. They are faced with the huge dilemma of either cutting back the service or increasing the fee. If they increase the fee they then go beyond the block grant capabilities and bursaries and so on. This will make it virtually impossible for students from socioeconomic disadvantaged backgrounds to attend. This is a big problem for schools. A principal of a school in Kilkenny, with whom I spoke yesterday afternoon, is absolutely at his wits end to know what to do in the circumstances with 500 boarders. The costs involved in running such a school are high. Schools are facing huge cutbacks in personnel and spending. At the same time, the potential for raising money locally to help out in the situation has been hampered by the general economic downturn. There is a squeeze in all directions. This is what we mean by the threat.

The existence of some of the smaller schools may well be threatened. Whether schools with 200, 300 or a few more pupils can continue to survive in the circumstances is questionable. If matters worsen, in terms of our allocation or departmental action, then the writing is on the wall for a number of these schools. How many of them will survive? We could be on the threshold of another great shake out with the 26 schools reducing drastically during the next four to five years.

My understanding is that the real difficulty emerges for schools in rural Ireland. Historically, the reason minority faith schools were in existence is because many Church of Ireland or Protestant children had to travel to a school and board there. These schools exist in only 13 of the 26 counties. Am I correct in assuming that the situation in each of the 21 schools is not the same in terms of their financial ability to weather this storm?

Mr. Ian Coombes

The Deputy is correct.

It is rural Protestant schools that face closure.

Mr. Ian Coombes

The schools are serving communities in different places. The economic well-being of a community in one part of the country as compared with another can vary. There can be quite a difference between a rural area in west Cork and in Cork city. The same is true of Dublin. In many cases, various different communities are being served. Let us not forget, that the Dublin schools, such as Wesley College, which is the only school for Methodist children in the country per se, are serving the country as a whole. Newtown School in Waterford serves the Society of Friends. St. Andrew’s College and Monaghan Collegiate School have a strong Presbyterian influence. On the layout of how that works, if one takes the whole swathe of territory around Dublin, there is no Protestant managed school within approximately 80 km to 100 km, except for in County Louth. Only 12 of the 26 counties have a Protestant managed school in operation. The Dublin area takes students from rural Leinster, the midlands and so on. Many of those schools serve rural areas as well.

I missed some of the discussion. I thank the delegation for giving us an understanding of the difficulties and problems. I refer to the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio from 19:1 to 20:1. Has the delegation quantified how many posts will be affected in the schools about which we are talking? It was suggested that it will mean higher fees or redundancies. How many jobs will be affected? Will it mean higher fees or redundancies or a combination of both?

Mr. Noel Merrick

Those representing fee charging schools can answer for them but I can answer for the whole country.

Mr. Christopher Woods

We will lose five incremental posts. We have to decide whether to cut back on them or to privately employ the people affected. We will also lose €250,000 in grants previously made available to the minority faith schools. I will quantify that in simple terms. If one takes €50,000 for every teacher, €250,000 is being taken away in terms of teacher support and €250,000 is being taken away in terms of grants. That is €500,000 which is a great deal of money. Every school in our sector is suffering similarly.

Sr. Eileen Randles

Between three and five incremental posts will be lost, depending on the size of the school. In effect, what that means is the next three teachers who leave a school will not be replaced by the State. This impinges on the provision of subjects more than class sizes because class sizes tend to be the same across the whole voluntary sector, regardless of whether it is a fee paying school. The provision of subjects and so on is a major concern.

In my case, we will have a meeting next Monday and the question we will ask is whether anybody is leaving this year. We hope very few teachers will leave the school because the next three who leave will not be replaced.

I refer to the question of whether we will have to raise the fees. I wish to raise the payment of teachers because there is a simplistic sound bite in the media about a sort of horror situation, namely, why should the taxpayers pay the salaries of teachers in fee paying schools? Parents who send their children to fee paying schools are also taxpayers and, in some cases, very high taxpayers.

The reality is that if the salaries of the teachers were taken from the fee paying schools — these are recognised schools, many of which are the oldest schools in the country — the outcome will be that the schools will close or will try to get into the free scheme but there is no guarantee they would be accepted into in the free scheme.

There is a vote in the Seanad, so I will allow Senator Healy Eames, who has indicated she wishes to speak, to come in.

From the debate so far, it is clear we all aspire to equity of access and provision for all our children. However, there is not a level playing field, as Mr. Woods and Mr. Coombes said. That is not only the case in the fee paying sector but in the public one as well.

I am trying to square something. These schools receive €90 less in grant aid per pupil compared with the community schools and €200 less——

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

It is all schools.

Sr. Eileen Randles

We do not get any grant.

These schools receive the salaries. We have not clarified the fees each of these schools charge pupils. That is important information.

A Witness

It varies greatly.

I know it varies but that information should be given.

I am delighted these schools accept children from disadvantaged areas and approximately 10% of children have special educational needs. That does not square with the number of children in disadvantaged areas. For a child to be categorised as disadvantaged, one of the criteria is that a parent must have a medical card.

I am curious about the fees being charged and the percentage of children in each of these schools dropping out before they do their leaving certificate, and I know my colleagues will pick this up after I leave for the vote in the Seanad. The national average is 18% — one in every six students. In socio-economically disadvantaged areas, the percentage can be up to 65% as opposed to 18% nationally. What percentage of these schools' pupils drop out before the leaving certificate? I am keen to hear the answer and how that squares up.

The Senator can read the record.

I apologise that I must leave.

To be fair to Sr. Randles, she will be able to focus her anguish shortly. However, I wish to be fair to Mr. Foley and Mr. Coombes, who want to respond to an earlier question.

There is a very clear statement in budget 2009 which is in the documentation. It is actually an extraordinary assault on the republican ethos of this country. My reading of what it says is that the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and the Department have unilaterally dismantled the historic agreement of 1966-67 in regard to the equal treatment of the minority schools and that they have been forced out of the free education system.

Mr. Gerry Foley

I refer to the question on the number of jobs being lost. This is a very fraught time because it is the time we talk about staffing for next year. In a school such as mine, we will lose approximately 10%.

Mr. Ian Coombes

We will lose exactly the same percentage — in fact, just over 10%. It amounts to just over three teachers in whole-time equivalent units who will not be replaced. Some of them are already leaving. The only thing which is difficult for people outside the education structure to understand is that even if people are not retiring, we still lose them because additional hours which one would get for special needs or whatever will be ploughed into one's whole-time equivalents and, therefore, one will not get those hours for the special needs or the other additions. It will be immediate; it is not something which will happen in the longer term.

Sr. Eileen Randles

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.

Sr. Eileen Randles

I am in my 23rd year on that board of management. Can I comment on the league tables to which Deputy Quinn referred? They are interesting and make fascinating reading. I am conscious that our colleagues from the media are here. Every league table looks different. There is a different school at the top every time. We run four fee-paying and four non-fee-paying schools in the Dublin area, as well as 12 other schools throughout the country. Our schools are in different places on the league tables every time they are published. Our schools in the free scheme do extremely well too. The next time the members of the committee look at the league tables, they should bear in mind that pupils from many schools in all parts of the country do not go to UCD and Trinity College.

Sr. Eileen Randles

Many young people choose to attend the nearest university, college or institute of technology, even if it is on the other side of the Border.

It depends on the question one asks.

That is why the education authorities should produce their own league tables.

Sr. Eileen Randles

The bottom line is that our schools are not feeder schools for the main universities. We provide services to, and develop the talents of, the youngsters in our classrooms. They then do all sorts of further training at third level.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I would like to pick up on that point before I move on to a more substantive point. We are proud of the broad educational opportunities the voluntary secondary schools have traditionally provided to children. Traditionally, there has been a culture of high expectation in voluntary secondary schools, regardless of whether they are fee-paying schools. We do not apologise to anybody for that culture, which we promote alongside the development of the child and quality teaching and learning.

I would like to respond to a point made by Senator Healy Eames. I represent a broad family of 400 voluntary secondary schools. The Senator mentioned that there is a serious €90 discrepancy between our schools and community schools. It is a huge problem for our schools, across the board. There is a discrepancy of €200 per pupil compared to the vocational schools. This issue, which is affecting our schools, must not be ignored. I remind those who have spoken about disadvantage that 203 post-primary schools avail of the DEIS scheme. Approximately 500 schools are attended by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. May I dare to suggest that the 2009 budget showed little regard for such students? The book grant was removed and the transition year and leaving certificate applied grants were abolished. As a country, we should try to ensure we support those who experience disadvantage. As a result of State policy, our schools are encountering greater difficulties as they try to do that.

As a consequence of my forgetfulness, I would like to ask Mr. Woods about fee-charging schools that support minority faiths. Did such schools receive a capitation grant increase in the budget?

Mr. Christopher Woods

We do not receive a capitation grant. I can explain how the system works.

That is fine. I wanted to clarify something. Did the schools with which Sr. Randles is associated receive a capitation grant increase, or any other increase, in the budget?

Sr. Eileen Randles

We do not get any grants. The only thing the Catholic——

Non-fee-paying schools in the voluntary sector receive grants.

Sr. Eileen Randles

They do.

It might sound like a stupid question. The Minister has said that the book grant is being cancelled because he wants to develop a much more streamlined system within which capitation grants can be increased. The point I was trying to make was that the schools we are discussing have been particularly penalised, in effect.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

I refer briefly to the losses being endured by two schools in the free education voluntary sector, even when the increase in the capitation grant is taken into account. A school of 800 pupils is facing a net loss of €64,000. A school of 400 pupils is facing a net loss of €27,573. Those are the actual figures. It is not a speculative calculation. They are the real figures for two particular schools. The figures I have in front of me reflect the reality with which our schools are dealing.

Mr. Noel Merrick

Every school, across the board, is losing teachers.

Fee-paying voluntary secondary schools are not losing more money as a result of these changes. One of the 56 schools in question took a high-profile legal action last year, challenging a scheme under which a teacher was to be deployed to it. The school's action was based on the argument that it was against its ethos to accept a teacher in circumstances in which it had not previously accepted a teacher. It queried whether the State had the right to impose the teacher on it. Do the representatives of the Joint Managerial Body for Secondary Schools think that action was wise?

Mr. Christopher Woods

I represent one of the four schools that took the action in question. The Deputy has repeated the unfortunate public perception of what the action was about. I wish to correct that. The Department of Education and Science expects boards of management to run schools and to take responsibility for everything that happens in them, including the employment of staff, and so on. Boards of management are charged with interviewing teachers. As part of that process, each school wants to get the best teacher it can. Each school will look for a teacher who is comfortable with its ethos. The schools in question did not object to the redeployment scheme. They objected to the departmental position, which was that when it comes down to it, the Department should be allowed to impose any teacher it wants on schools with independent boards of management that are willing to take responsibility for such appointments. We sought the right to interview any teacher whom it may be proposed to redeploy into our schools, just as we would interview anybody seeking employment in our schools. That right is important for all kinds of reasons, including child safety. If a board of management is to be in charge of a school, it should be allowed to satisfy itself that an employee will work with it in this way. In a nutshell, that is what the legal action was about. I do not know if the committee wants to know any more about the matter. It is not really relevant to what we are discussing here today.

I raised this issue in public session in response to suggestions I heard about the Department's reasons for taking its rather astonishing stance. Mr. Woods is familiar with my views on the effects of the budget decisions on the 21 schools. I have stated publicly that they constituted an outrageous attack on this country's minority faiths. I am interested to hear the views of Mr. Woods on a suggestion that is going about the place. We might as well say it in public. It has been suggested that the Department decided to attack the 21 schools in question because of the legal action that had been taken.

The Deputy can say that, but I could not possibly comment.

Mr. Christopher Woods

I will put it like this — the secretary of the Church of Ireland's board of education has suggested that such a connection would be unthinkable.

Yes. That brings me back to another point I wanted to make. There has been a seismic shift. I refer to the implications of the budget. Does the Joint Managerial Body for Secondary Schools feel it has been taken out of the free education system? Am I reading that correctly? When it opted to get involved in that system in 1965 or 1966, it negotiated a different form of payment in light of the nature of the Protestant minority faith community. I refer to its dispersed density, for example.

Mr. Christopher Woods

In light of the dispersed nature of the minority faith populations, we had to charge fees to cope with the cost of boarding. Wesley College recently refurbished its boarding units at private expense. It is obvious that such developments have to be paid for. The State will not come in and provide for them. It is obvious that the standards parents expect are getting higher. The Minister for Education of the time understood all of that. He quite deliberately put us into the free scheme. That point has been reiterated by every Minister since then. On foot of a letter that was sent to the Minister by a number of Church of Ireland bishops, dated 2 March 2009, the Minister decided to try to wriggle out of this one. Bizarrely, he suggested that our schools had never been part of the free education scheme. It was probably an indication that he had not been particularly well informed by his advisers. We were part of the scheme and we still consider ourselves to be part of the scheme. We continue to expect that we will participate in it. We do not understand how we could possibly be treated any differently.

It is actually worse than that. He said in the Dáil that he had been advised by the Office of the Attorney General that if he made a distinction in the case of the schools represented by Mr. Woods, he would have to make a distinction in the case of every other school in the fee-paying sector. When we asked him when he had received such advice, he was not forthcoming with an answer.

Mr. Christopher Woods

That is a slightly different issue.

No, it is not. All of these issues are connected. It might be difficult to prove that. If previous Ministers had received legal advice to the effect that a distinction should be made, they would have made it. It was very convenient for the Minister to suggest that there was a legal reason for him to change the grants.

We will not speculate on the Minister's reasons.

I can speculate.

Sr. Eileen Randles

I will not give a history lecture on the development of Irish education. When the free education scheme started in 1967, two major points were made by the minority faiths and respected and supported by the rest of us. Before I come to that, I want to refer to the question of boarding schools. This is something that gets forgotten with the passage of time. At that time, many of the schools in this country were boarding schools. There was no free transport and so on.

I was principal of a school at the time and it was difficult to obtain details about the free scheme. The Deputy should read the Dáil speeches of Donogh O'Malley, as the language was interesting. It emerged that if one joined the free scheme and was running a boarding school as well as a day school, the State, through the Department of Education, imposed a financial limit on what could be charged for the boarders. The strange thing was one's son could have stayed at the Gresham Hotel paying top dollar and attended a free school but as soon as one's son boarded with the same group that ran the school, there was a financial limit. It was off the wall stuff, which should never have been accepted, but it continued until the boarding schools closed.

One of the distinctions made for the minority faiths at that time was a specific waiver in respect of that restriction on the basis that because of their dispersed population, they had to have boarders. That was fully respected. The other distinction was the Catholic schools were able to depend on the salaries and so on of the priests and brothers who lived spartan lives and who put all their money into the schools. The schools of the minority faiths did not have that but we accepted that was factually accurate and we supported the arrangement. Subsequently, the special arrangements were unpacked and unpicked through the current restrictions on the budget. Grants came on stream following the introduction of the free education scheme and they were made available to the minority faith fee-paying schools or the schools in the free scheme but not to the Catholic fee-paying schools. The Minister in his announcement used the word "anomaly". That is the anomaly he was seeking to remove but, in so doing, he created much more serious difficulties for the minority faith schools.

A total of 56 schools that for one reason or another go to the wall because of what has happened. It has been suggested by a number of contributors that it would be difficult to re-enter the free scheme. How do we know that?

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

The 26,000 pupils will have to be educated. They can enter the free scheme or any scheme because they are entitled to an education in this State and that will have to be provided by the State. While they are provided with an education in the fee charging sector, it is a net contributor to the State because while the salaries are contributed by the State, the remainder of the funding is provided through parental and local community contributions.

There was a suggestion that the Department would not accept one of the 56 schools back into the free scheme.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

That is pure speculation. From the joint managerial body's perspective, we do not have any evidence of that.

I asked in the Dáil whether an application was made in recent times and the reply was "No, it was not". It may have been discussed but a formal application was not made.

Mr. Gerry Foley

Anecdotally, I am aware that one of our schools some time back made an application in regard to this and it was not accepted. It was not encouraged and, at this economic time, I can imagine that if one approached the Department and said, "We would love to go back in. We have 1,000 students. You have to find the capitation and, by the way, here comes the building with it and all the maintenance as well.". One would be given a cool reception.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

Deputy Hayes asked Mr. Foley about the legal case last year. The entire voluntary secondary sector has a concern around the role of the board because the board has an obligation as an employer and upholder of characteristic spirit, both of which obligations it must fulfil, and therefore, in any redeployment scheme, all voluntary secondary schools will have that concern about the board continuing to fulfil those obligations. That applies to the 400 voluntary secondary schools.

Deputy O'Mahony referred to class size and the budget, and so on. The PTR increase is not an issue of class size, as he will be aware from his own background, but it is an issue of the loss of teachers. More than 1,000 teachers will be lost to the post-primary sector and the implication of that is a restricted curriculum, programmes being dropped, different levels having to be amalgamated and so on. It has nothing to do with class size but more to do with the programme schools can continue to offer.

Sr. Eileen Randles

I refer to the question of applying for admission to the free scheme. Like Mr. Foley, I am aware of anecdotal evidence some time ago of an approach being made to the Department. It would not consider a class act but it would look at every school on its merits, where it was, the need for it and so on. It was not made easy, although there were protestations of "You know we would welcome this" and so on. When we made decisions in 1967 about joining the free scheme, there was no indication that there would be punitive measures. For example, we did not know we would not be given building grants, which were completely new. This is lost on the general public. Not a penny of State funding was made available to voluntary secondary schools. It was announced in 1964 and it did not come into action until 1966-67. It started at 60% of the grant and then gradually went up. I acknowledge some fee paying schools have been given capital grants. However, that was done on an ex gratia basis and they are never sure. It only happened in the good times.

I would like to focus on the discrepancies of €90 and €200 in the funding per capita in the voluntary sector. As a product of the Holy Ghost Fathers, I witnessed the living together, 24-7 community and continuous activities with no problem about insurance. In the public private partnership described by Sr. Randles, which was historically the characteristic of the relationship between the State and the education providers at second level of whatever background, either the religious teaching community or the Department failed to quantify the value in management terms that was delivered by the religious teaching orders. Is the reason for the discrepancy the fact that 24/7 spartan living community was subsidising that? There is a different historical legacy from the low level of density and dispersal of the minority faith communities. How do we move towards the equalisation of per capita funding per student in the free voluntary sector? How can we continue to justify the discrepancy between €200 and €90 per capita?

Mr. Gerry Foley

When the in-school management structure came in with posts of responsibility, it began to address the fact that lay people run and manage these schools. It went some way towards that. A great deal of work has been done by the unions and management bodies. With the change in pupil-teacher ratios, the number of posts will change and this will happen in every school. In addition, those posts will not be replaced. For example, if teachers are worried their lump sum will be taxed on the basis of anecdotal evidence, quite a number may resign. Many of them are A post holders carrying out significant duties within the school. For example, in my school I am looking at a scenario where up to four people could resign who are post holders and they will not be replaced. A transition year co-ordinator is moving and will not be replaced. We are left managing schools in a scenario where the legacy was the religious would have looked after all this. We are lay people and we are left to manage them in an almost impossible situation. That applies not only to fee-paying schools but across the board.

That is a wider educational issue. The State depended on the religious over the years.

Mr. Gerry Foley

It is all coming together.


Mr. Noel Merrick

Several measures have been taken in recent years in respect of equalisation. The programme for Government contained big promises about completing equalisation within two years. Tiny measures have been taken; for example, the budget for this year provided for €8. That was to cover all the grants we were losing as well. We were net losers this year.

Is the high level the benchmark to which they are trying to bring the other levels?

Mr. Noel Merrick


It is not converging on the centre.

Mr. Noel Merrick

All the other sectors would say that they are underfunded in comparison with their European counterparts. They could not claim that they are well funded.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

Based on the figures we have for our 400 voluntary secondary schools on average 30% of the annual expenditure must be raised through the local community, through support from parents, fund-raising or whatever efforts can be made. That applies across the board in order to allow for the continuation of current programmes in the school. We are not talking about lowering because by international standards we are already low and cannot go much further down. We want to raise our sector.

I am conscious of the time but if members want to continue the discourse that is well and good. I want to return to the letter to the Minister that Mr. Woods read out. It was dated around 7 March. The Minister will meet the select committee on 7 May in respect of the budget and the joint committee on any topic we choose but that will probably be influenced by the budget. It might be helpful if the witnesses here today were to provide Deputies and Senators, and particularly the lead Opposition spokespersons, with three or four pertinent questions to put to the Minister who is being asked so many questions within a limited time. The witnesses may want answers to specific questions and may find it useful to put them through the lead spokespersons and other Members.

It would be a good idea for the witnesses to provide the figures for economically disadvantaged students and those with special educational needs in all the schools covered. The contributions today suggest that there is a genuine effort to be inclusive. Some schools may be falling by the wayside and need a kick in the right direction. The publication of the relevant information, highlighting those schools, by way of a letter to the committee would be very beneficial.

Mr. Christopher Woods

Some people have referred to league tables and so on and university entrance. This morning we have also discussed the inclusion of people with special educational needs. This poses a problem because publishing league tables gives publicity to particular schools and encourages society one way or another. It is very difficult to expect the public not to swallow media attention to a school at the top of the list which is deemed the best but to ask whether the school provides adequately for people with special educational needs. League tables are dangerous. They give a distorted view.

Schools that fail their responsibilities need peer pressure to up their game.

Sr. Eileen Randles

While I respect the questions the committee members have put to us I have grave reservations and hesitation about providing information on the number of youngsters from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in some schools. This is a highly sensitive and confidential issue that each school deals with in a particular way.

This is true but everyone here today answered the question very honestly.

Sr. Eileen Randles

It might be possible to give an aggregate between all the schools.

Principals here today gave specific answers and I do not think any individual principal would have a problem.

I have said to the editor of the ASTI house magazine that league tables are a reality. They are not an accurate reflection of what is happening in schools. Journalists say that editors and the circulation managers of the newspapers have a voracious appetite for getting the league tables out ahead of the competition. That momentum will not be reversed no matter how bad we think it is. Not every parent has a genius child who wants to go to Cambridge or Oxford. We live in a consumer society in which openness, transparency and access to information have become the norm. The principals, their colleagues and the rest of the post-primary system should take ownership of this process. In the northern counties there are major success ratios for people crossing the Border to go to Queen's University Belfast, or to Scotland or Wales. This tide cannot be turned back. I invite the principals to control the flow of information and the Fourth Estate, dare I say, will give them the loudest cheer.

The comments of members are noted. This is at the discretion of the witnesses. I was not proposing a league table structure but a means to ascertain that most schools meet their obligations in this respect, as seems to be the case.

May I comment on league tables?

This is not a league table issue. It concerns students with special educational needs and who are economically disadvantaged.

I agree with what Deputy Quinn said about league tables but that is not the issue. The question concerned the percentages of students with special educational needs and economic disadvantage in the 56 schools. The solution is not to give the information school by school but as an aggregate of the 56 schools. What percentage across the fee-paying sector come from a special educational needs background and what percentage come from an economically disadvantaged one?

That is a fair suggestion.

Mr. Ian Coombes

The most accurate figures are stored in the Department. It ought to have up to date figures based on information from the special educational needs officers and the allocation of staff for resource teaching and so on because the schools constantly supply them.

Sr. Eileen Randles

We have to supplement that provision because of the percentiles.

We can assess it on the exact number of teachers who will lose jobs as a result of budget cutbacks in the Department so it is fair enough to get it straight from the horse's mouth as well.

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

As a further point of information it must be recognised that the WSE scrutinises all schools, primary and post-primary, and the reports are available to one and all on the Department's website.

I contend that we will never be able to establish which school, schools or type of school best serve the needs of pupils with special educational needs or who are socially disadvantaged. The league tables are not an accurate measurement. They are a false measurement of learning gain over the five or six years of second level schooling, unless one measures the kids' achievement at first year. The Department, the schools and the media must grasp that nettle and measure the kids entering first year and the outcomes, according to the exam driven system, at the end of the leaving certificate. They should show that a certain percentage of the children came from economically disadvantaged environments and a certain percentage had special educational needs. What is Mr. Kelly's view of that proposal?

Mr. Ferdia Kelly

How do we measure the added value? That is my difficulty. How do I measure the support that a child in the school has received who has gone on to employment, or an apprenticeship or whatever? That child is as important to me and to my colleagues as the one who gets 600 points.

It is as important to me. Reference was made to league tables. As Deputy Quinn said and as I am sure Deputy Brian Hayes also said, league tables are a fact of life. Parents are grasping for information and they use league tables to gain information in the absence of WSE reports and more comprehensive holistic information. Until we have a measurement of the educational outcomes in respect of those entering and exiting second level and work out the difference, namely the learning gain, we will not be truly able to measure this. On that point alone——

The Senator has made her point. I will not put that question because the issue of league tables in general is a much wider debate.

Deputy Quinn has put forward a proposal, which I believe is fair, namely, that rather than obtaining a breakdown for individual schools, that we obtain an aggregate, or a percentage average, for all schools under the scheme. It would benefit all the schools in that sense. The members of the media present are obviously responsible. They are educational correspondents in the main. They do their job well. They submit their articles but are limited in that respect in the column inches they are given.

If anyone were to complain about the system as it operates, I would refer them to the website containing this debate of the committee. It would give a detailed background on the issue. The Senator has made some valid points. Anyone watching a playback of this debate on the web, who is in the Visitors' Gallery or who reads a transcript of this debate later will have a different opinion compared with possibly the prejudicial one they may have had prior to doing so. The statistics need to be presented and digested and I request that they be presented, although that will be at the discretion of the witnesses.

As applies to any delegation, the witnesses are invited to attend in the Visitors' Gallery when the Minister makes a presentation on 7 May. It might be an interesting discussion.

I will ask Mr. Merrick to briefly sum up in the context of the debate we have had.

Mr. Noel Merrick

I thank the members of the committee for their time and for engaging with us on this subject. We greatly appreciate that. I thank the Chairman for his comments regarding people's views on issues that may be in the public domain. In terms of what we have said, hopefully, we have clarified those issues.

All the voluntary schools do their very best. We are part of a family of 400 voluntary schools across the country. As we outlined, there is an historic background to all these schools. Some went into the non-fee-paying sector in 1966 and some, for various reasons, could not go into that sector. There is an historic legacy in that respect. They have all done their best to provide appropriate education for their pupils.

We have examined the special educational needs issue as carefully as possible prior to coming here and at this meeting. We are very open about our admissions policies. None of us would stand over imputation that we would not accept pupils based on their educational needs. They are all accepted. It is post-acceptance that the various tests are done as regards whether they need resource hours and so on, and in that event such an application would be made to the Department of Education and Science.

In regard to the economically disadvantaged, Mr. Gerry Foley spoke about Belvedere College and outlined how the minority faith schools look after their students.

The fee-paying schools have pointed out that if teachers' salaries had to be removed in respect of these schools, the cost to the State of such provision would suddenly be very high. Furthermore, the pot of money available for the rest of us would be decreased because the funding available would not be adequate. I hope every school does its very best by the children who enrol in it and provides a good service for the country.

I thank Mr. Merrick and all the representatives of the joint managerial body for coming here today. It has been a very informative and constructive debate. I hope it will help eliminate some of the prejudices.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.35 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 7 May 2009.