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Protestant Schools and the Economic Downturn

Minister for Education, Batt OKeeffe TD

Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe TD

The Sunday Independent yesterday published an opinion piece by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD in which he responded to this article by Alan Ruddock. Mr. Ruddock had attacked the decision taken by the Minister in last year’s budget to strip a group of fee-paying Protestant secondary schools of a category of ancilliary funding – used to pay caretakers and secretaries – totalling about €3m annually. 21 of the 56 fee-paying secondary schools in the country subscribe to a Protestant ethos. In 1966, during the term of office of  the Fianna Fail Minister for Education Donagh O’Malley, the State came to an agreement with this group of schools; an ad hoc solution to an issue of accommodation of religious minorities. At the time, O’Malley planned to introduce a system of free secondary education for the first time in Ireland’s history. He succeeded. The government in which he served  recognised that because the Protestant population in Ireland was so small and so widely dispersed,  it would be impractical for the State to provide Protestant children with the type of schooling which Catholic children could easily access by virtue of being part of the religious majority: a free secondary education grounded in an appropriate religious framework. The government therefore agreed to provide ‘block funding’  which covers day to day running costs, tuition and boarding grants to Protestant schools. The amount of funding this year was €6.5m. The block funding is distributed, via the Secondary Education Committee, to support Protestant children whose parents would not otherwise be able to send them to a fee-paying school, thus closing an important ‘equality gap’ in the new secondary education regime. The block funding – so-called because it is given to the SEC in a lump sum rather than per capita as happens in the majority of schools – remains in place as it has done for over 40 years but these fee-paying schools will no longer receive ancilliary grants, which from now on will be provided only to non-fee-paying schools. They are expected to raise any necessary extra income from their own resources by taking on more students, or if necessary by joining the free education scheme. The Protestant Secondary Education blog has policy documents from a conference held in Dublin on October 3, together with a good selection of media responses, including audio clips here.

This is the second time in as many years that the Minister’s policies have provoked anger among Ireland’s Protestants, many of whom have, in the words of Cork’s Bishop Paul Colton, come to view the accommodation of Protestant education as ‘a litmus of how Ireland treats and values us’. In June of last year, four Protestant secondary schools mounted a High Court challenge to the government’s teacher redeployment scheme, which would have required them to accept teachers onto their staff who had been made redundant by school closures elsewhere in Dublin. The schools sought a declaration that it would be unconstitutional for the Minister for Education to compel them to employ teachers who were not of the Protestant faith without any assurance that these teachers would subscribe to the ethos of the schools concerned. The schools expressed concern that their hiring autonomy would be severely circumscribed. The case settled, but the terms of the settlement were not released.

In his piece in yesterday’s Independent, Minister O’Keeffe wrote (following cautious advice of the type that we have come to expect from our Attorney General) that the grants which will no longer be paid to Protestant schools

weren’t paid to fee-charging schools operating under a Catholic ethos. So the Budget move eliminated an anomalous position that had developed over time…Exempting Protestant fee-charging schools from the changes in last year’s Budget and treating them as a special case would conflict with Article 44.2 of the Constitution, which states that “State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations.”

His critics, however, insist that by working in terms of ‘anomaly’, the Minister is not comparing like with like. First, a child at a Catholic fee-paying school will, in all likelihood, avail of that option even where she might easily have gone to a free local Catholic secondary school, whereas a Protestant child goes to a fee-paying school because there is no equivalent free Protestant school in her area. In addition, O’Keefe’s critics note that the Protestant schools affected by the Minister’s measures take in a large number of boarders from low income families whose fees are paid by the state, and so they are not comparable to Catholic fee paying schools, which house the children of what one columnist in the Irish Times likes to call (with tongue surprisingly far from cheek) ‘the formerly wealthy’. There is also, in many of the critiques of O’Keeffe’s position, a claim to accommodation on a point of principle; to a sense of preferred minority status which ought not to be diminished without prior consultation.

Minister O’ Keeffe wrote yesterday that ‘[t]his Government remains committed to ensuring that children from Protestant backgrounds continue to attend schools that reflect their ethos.’ His critics argue that in consequence of his cuts, the quality of education provided at the affected schools will suffer. In the worst case scenario, many low-income Protestant families, especially those from rural areas, will find themselves in precisely the position that Donagh O’Malley sought to prevent: if there is not a free or affordable Protestant secondary school in the area, the children will have to attend the nearest local school, which  (because, as Senator David Norris notes, this government like its predecessors has little apparent interest in exploring the possibility of  a secular state-funded option in our school system)  is likely to promote an explicitly Catholic ethos.  The result is that – as so often happens – the practical vindication of constitutionally enshrined religious freedoms risks being reduced to the essentials of the market: numbers, national and local influence and cash.  What is more, although those attacking the Minister’s approach bemoan the destruction of  what was effectively an honour agreement between Department and schools, we might well wonder whether the protection of minority rights ought not to be based on something more substantial. The Protestant schools debacle demonstrates that Ireland has a long history of privatising religious accommodation; of delegating what are, arguably, central aspects of its own duties to schools and committees. Can we do better?


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