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Republic's Protestant schools ready for class war

By John Walshe

The Protestant community in the Republic normally keeps a low profile in the more heated education debates, but not this time

Dubln's education minister Batt O'Keeffe may have pandered to populist instincts by hitting fee-paying schools harder than the rest.

But he has, unwittingly, upset a community that successive ministers for education have sought to reassure -- Protestants.

"The cuts across the sector are savage, but in the case of Protestant schools are penal and unjust," was the very strong reaction of the Reverend John McCullagh, the normally reserved and low-key spokesman for the Protestant community on educational matters.

Of course, the very term "fee-paying" suggests elite schools catering for the scions of the rich and privileged in society -- as some of these schools undoubtedly do.

The facilities that the more expensive Protestant and Catholic schools enjoy really are to be envied -- with fabulous sports grounds, nine-hole golf courses, rolling acres and fine old buildings. Fundraising for new buildings is generally not a problem.

But that's not the full story.

The fees charged by others are very modest indeed. Some of the old buildings elsewhere are no longer fine. Fee-paying schools also cater for low-to-middle income families who make great sacrifices to send their children to schools which they believe, rightly or wrongly, offer a better start in life.

In the case of the Protestant community, there are 21 fee-paying schools which are the only option for most if they wish to attend a school of their own ethos.

There isn't the equivalent of a free education scheme for Protestants as there is for Catholic students. There are a few comprehensive schools such as Newpark and Mount Temple, which were set up to cater for Protestant pupils, and where attendance is free. But for historic reasons, most of the Protestant secondary schools are fee-paying. Needy parents get assistance under a special grants scheme, but by no means does it cover all the fees for all Protestant pupils.

As Mr McCullagh has pointed out, up to 30pc of the Protestant school-going population has some element of disadvantage, while 10pc are on either social welfare or the minimum wage.

He fears for the future of some of the smaller Protestant schools, especially those outside Dublin, and says one is already talking about being unable to continue for more than a few years.

Putting up fees may be the only practical response for some Protestant schools, but clearly not for them all. However, it's not just the teacher issue that's upsetting the Protestant community. The decision to end a special service support grant, which only applies to Protestant managed schools, has fuelled anger.

The principal of Sligo Grammar School, Wynn Oliver, said this alone would result in a reduction of €70,000 from his school's running costs this year.

The loss of teachers and the ending of the special grant, which was introduced to ensure that Protestant schools continued to cater for Protestant students, was a "double whammy" he said.

"This is discrimination. Our minority status is being diluted without any consultation. It is a shuddering disgrace," he said.

The Protestant community normally keeps a low profile in the more heated education debates, but not this time -- and it's a foolish politician who won't listen.

The Government, of course, cannot make an exception on the staffing schedule for fee-paying Protestant schools, as it would have to do exactly the same for the fee-paying Catholic schools.

Otherwise, it would end up in the High Court, where it would inevitably be found guilty of discrimination against Catholic schools.

The more expensive and better-known fee-paying Catholic schools will find it difficult to evoke public sympathy for the loss of teachers, whatever about any private pressure they can exert.

Indeed, their mere existence provokes the politics of envy among swathes of the population.

Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's eighth book, in the latest addition to his 'trilogy', again lampoons the image of rugger-playing upper class twits who talk with Class-A accents.

But again, it's not the full story. There are also some very modest fee-paying schools which stayed outside the free education scheme when it was introduced by Donogh O'Malley -- because their fees were just over the threshold he set at the time.

A good example is the CBS in Cork where the deputy principal Tony McCarthy is furious over the Teachers' Union of Ireland call to withdraw state payment of salaries from teachers in fee-paying schools.

If that happens, the schools will have to join the free education scheme, where the salaries will have to be paid anyway, he says, adding: "That's not a saving".

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