Dáil debates

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

3:00 pm

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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]

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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]

4:00 pm

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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——

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

After 40 years that is unlikely.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Let them try.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I assure Deputy Quinn that my advice from the Attorney General's office is that it would be extremely difficult to defend it.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

So this is not an attempt to save money.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We must remember that the secondary education committee dispenses the block grant.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

There is no debate about that.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is a matter for it to decide where is the greatest need.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am absolutely shocked at the idea of bringing up the Attorney General and all the spurious arguments made by the Minister.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Exactly.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Does the Minister agree that withdrawing the funding mid-year puts the schools in a very difficult position in that they must plan a budget for the year?

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

And the fees.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Why did he not consult them previously?

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That was agreed many years ago.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Please allow the Minister to continue.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Lip service.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Mid-year, no notice.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is neither fair nor equitable.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

On top of all the other cuts.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Deputies should allow the Minister to reply to the questions.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In those circumstances, I must have regard to the rights of others.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister gave no notice.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That was never an issue before.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Of course we gave no notice; it was a budgetary measure. As part of a budgetary measure, we made it quite clear that this was one of the cuts——

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister is stirring up a hornets' nest and will regret it.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am very well aware of how sensitive is this issue.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Why did he make the decision in that case?

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister was bounced into it.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Was the advice received from the Attorney General before or after the budget?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

What Catholic school will challenge it?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

There are only 90 seconds remaining. I will allow a further supplementary question from Deputy Olivia Mitchell.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Was the advice received from the Attorney General before or after the budget?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That advice has been in place for some time.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

How many years?

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is only because of the cutbacks.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was recently reiterated when the issue——

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

How many years?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Allow the Minister to answer the question.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

When the issue was checked, the advice still stood. It is a question of fee-paying schools and a grant of €6.25 million.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

For children with no other school to go to.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was a block grant. The opportunity for the secondary education committee to dispense that €6.25 million to those particular pupils who are most in need——

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is being done — it is not the issue.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

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.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Each child is assessed for need.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is within the remit of the secondary education committee——

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It affects the rural schools in the same way.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

——to dispense the money where it sees the greatest need.

Photo of Olivia MitchellOlivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is what is being done already.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister is intimidating a minority sector.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That concludes Question Time for today.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Trying to stir up the emotions is typical of Deputy Charles Flanagan.