Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Question 106: To ask the Minister for Education and Science his views on the concerns raised by Protestant fee-paying schools in response to his recent announcements following budget 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38082/08]
Question 113: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the reasoning behind the abolition of the support services grant to Protestant fee-paying schools; and if his attention has been drawn to the implications of this decision for the very existence of some of these schools. [38223/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 106 and 113 together.
I wish to re-emphasise that there are no changes proposed in respect of the Protestant block grant. Protestant fee-charging schools receive and will continue to receive the Protestant block grant, which in the current school year amounts to €6.25 million. This payment covers capitation, tuition and boarding grants.
The grant is distributed by the Secondary Education Committee among needier Protestant children. Applications are made by parents to the Central Protestant Churches Authority which, on the basis of a means test, distributes the funds to individual schools on the basis of pupil needs. The retention of this grant demonstrates the importance that I, and the Government, continue to attach to ensuring that students of the Protestant faith can attend schools which reflect their denominational ethos.
Furthermore, in retaining this grant, the Government is being faithful to the separate arrangements that were agreed with Protestant schools when the free scheme was introduced by Donogh O'Malley and, at the time, it was the payment of a block grant in particular for Protestant fee-charging schools that distinguished them from Catholic schools that also chose to continue to charge fees. In addition to the block grant, Protestant fee-charging schools were paid a range of support services grants that Catholic fee-charging schools did not receive. The purpose of these grants was not to offset fees for disadvantaged Protestant students.
It is estimated that savings of €2.8 million will accrue as a result of the withdrawal of these grants from Protestant fee-charging schools in 2009. I have had to take decisions in regard to a range of grants that have impacted on the funding of schools generally. With the Protestant block grant protected, I can see no justification for treating Protestant fee-charging schools in a special way, particularly given that Catholic fee-charging schools have not been in receipt of the grants in question at all.
I put it to the Minister that his actions on the issue gravely endanger a number of Protestant fee-paying schools outside of the larger cities. He needs to rethink this position. The special services grant, which he is effectively abolishing for Protestant fee-paying schools, will put many such schools to the wall in the coming years.
Currently, we have 26 Protestant post-primary schools in this country — five comprehensive and 21 fee-paying schools in 13 of the 26 counties. If one wants a Protestant ethos-led education for one's child, one has to send that child to a boarding school because, in effect, we have so few such schools.
When will the Minister meet with Archbishop Neill, whom I understand has sought a meeting with him to discuss the situation? In the context of North-South relations and the plurality of educational expression that we cherish, I urge the Minister to rethink his position and not to act in the way proposed in his budget announcement?
It was with no great relish that the grant was taken away. I appreciate that it will cause difficulties for some Protestant schools. I realise there are 21 Protestant fee-paying schools and I also realise that the existing block grant is quite substantial. A capitation grant of €39.36 is paid to 94% of pupils. A tuition grant of €274 per pupil is paid to 94% of pupils. The tuition fee for pupils who board is €15.36 per pupil. I am maintaining that grant, which is a significant one.
Catholic fee-paying schools do not avail of a similar capitation grant but we have adhered to the agreement that was reached in the time of Donogh O'Malley on the block grant. A 90% grant is available to Protestant schools for the school building programme but an ad hoc arrangement applies to Catholic fee-paying schools. Sometimes not even 50% of the building costs of Catholic fee-paying schools are covered. In withdrawing the grants, we are bringing Protestant fee-paying schools into line with Catholic fee-paying schools. Legal advice from the Attorney General's office suggests that we could find it extremely difficult to defend the continuation of those grants.
I never thought I would see the day when I would speak in praise of Deputy Bertie Ahern, but I must say this cut would never have happened under the former Taoiseach. He would have been alert to the sensitivity of the issue and he would certainly have realised that its import goes way beyond educational considerations — important as they are.
I contradict the Minister's attempt to rewrite history by suggesting that the commitment was to pay a block grant. That was not the commitment; it was to treat Protestant schools in the same way as schools going into the free scheme. This is the first ever breach of that commitment. That commitment itself reflected a commitment given to the Protestant community at the foundation of the State that they would be able to choose a school that reflected their faith and ethos. The sum of money under consideration is small.
I echo my colleague in urging the Minister to reconsider the issue. I do not know if he is aware of the impact it will have on schools. The number of schools affected is small but each school will lose, on average, €140,000 in the middle of the school year. That will have a significant impact. The immediate impact is that children will be taken out of school. They will have to leave the schools they have attended for years. The longer term impact is that schools will close. Does the Minister think this breach of faith and the long-term impact it will have on the Protestant community is really worth this paltry saving?
Deputy Hayes asked me if I would meet the Protestant bishops. I have agreed to meet with them and a date has been arranged for a meeting. I hope it will take place within the next two weeks.
I wish to clarify a matter which I think is important. The free education scheme was introduced in 1967 to facilitate the provision of second level education for all young people. Prior to that, all voluntary schools recognised by the Department and subject to its regulations were paid grants. With the introduction of the free education scheme, the majority of schools agreed to discontinue charging fees and were compensated by enhanced capitation grants. In 1986, the capitation grant was withdrawn from Catholic fee-charging schools for budgetary reasons. Catholic fee-charging second level schools do not receive the per capita grant or the schools services support grant in respect of their students, nor do they receive the various other curricular grants for current expenditure supports to which schools in the free education scheme are entitled. Some fee-charging schools are in receipt of secretarial support under the terms of the scheme.
I remind the Deputy that, first, there is a legal impediment. If a case is taken by one of the Catholic schools——
It is unbelievable. We are trying to cement a peace process, especially in the Border areas, yet schools are being put under pressure. I refer to Monaghan Collegiate School, the Royal Schools in Cavan and in Donegal and schools in Sligo, Dundalk and Drogheda, right around the Border. They are all being put under pressure by the Minister's spurious comment. It is extremely dangerous of him to suggest that a legal case will be taken against him if he does not break an agreement that has been in place for 40 years.
I urge the Minister to reconsider and to realise the damage he is doing not just to the individual schools in question, but to the structure that has been agreed and that has worked well for the past 40 years. I have never said it in the House before but I believe the Protestant community has the right to maintain its own ethos and to have its own schools. That was recognised 40 years ago and the Minister is putting that at serious risk. I urge him to reconsider and to ensure that does not happen.
On the issue of established arrangements and agreements of many years' standing, why does the Minister now feel he is justified in abandoning unilaterally an agreement that has stood the test of time and which was very important over the past 40 years? Why is he now abandoning it without any prior consultation? Will he review his decision?
This issue is much deeper than one of education, although it manifests itself in education for historical reasons with which we are all familiar and on which we will not spend time. The Government's decision is really an attack on the principle of diversity within this Republic.
The Minister is undermining a principle that we cherished in the South when, north of the Border, there was bigotry and oppression of a kind that we prized ourselves on condemning. This decision is starting the process that obtained in the North and I urge the Minister to reconsider it. There is a short-term impact in a cash year or current year and there is a long-term impact that will extend way beyond education.
On Deputy Crawford's question, the one thing I want to ensure is that diversity exists. I recognise the special position of the Protestant church but also that its schools are receiving a block grant of €6.25 million that no other fee-paying schools are receiving.
That signifies there is acceptance of the diversity and that, as far as we are concerned, we want to maintain the block grant to ensure the schools in receipt thereof can survive and grow.
Deputy Stanton asked me whether I believe the withdrawal of funding will cause difficulty. I am well aware it will cause serious difficulty and I obviously have concerns about this. However, I must also bear in mind what is equitable and right.
I want to deal with it as sensitively as I can but must emphasise that my clear legal advice from the Attorney General was that, if these grants are to remain, they will be extremely difficult to defend if challenged in a court of law.
That is the important point. There are some schools within the remit of the committee that obviously do not need the same level of support as others; for example, some of the rural schools.