Thursday, 7 May 2009
Billy Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who is unable to attend but sends his apologies.
I am pleased to be given the opportunity to clarify for this House the position with regard to the withdrawal of certain grants from Protestant fee-paying schools. The 2009 budget required difficult choices to be made across all areas of public expenditure. Decisions were made in order to control expenditure and ensure sustainability in the long term. In this respect, education, while protected to a much greater extent than most other areas of public expenditure, could not be entirely spared. The Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, acknowledges the impact of funding restrictions in a number of areas, including at school level. However, these are the inevitable results of the challenging international economic environment and the need to manage Exchequer resources.
With regard to the removal of certain support services grants received by Protestant fee-charging schools, the Minister wishes to re-emphasise that the Protestant block grant remains in place. Protestant fee-charging schools receive, and will continue to receive, this grant, which amounts to €6.25 million in the current school year. This payment covers capitation, tuition and boarding grants. It is distributed among needier Protestant children by the Secondary Education Committee. 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 the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, and this Government, continue to attach to ensuring students of the Protestant faith can attend schools that reflect their denominational ethos. In retaining this grant, the Government is being faithful to the separate arrangements agreed with the Protestant schools when the free scheme was introduced by the former Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley. At the time, the payment of the block grant for Protestant fee-charging schools distinguished those schools from the Catholic schools that chose to continue to charge fees.
It is estimated that savings of €2.8 million will accrue to the Department as a result of the withdrawal of support services grants from Protestant fee-charging schools in 2009. It is important to note that the purpose of these grants was not to offset fees for disadvantaged Protestant students but to cover a range of support services.
The Minister has had to take decisions on a number of grants that have impacted on the funding of schools generally. With the Protestant block grant remaining in place, the Minister can see no justification for treating the 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.
The Minister has met with representatives of both the Church of Ireland Board of Education and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland to discuss the funding position of Protestant fee-charging schools and the background to the decision to withdraw support services grants this year from Protestant fee-charging schools. He has expressed his willingness to consider any proposals that might be made to the Department that would enable the available funding to be focused and adjusted to meet more effectively the twin objectives of access for individuals and the sustaining of the dispersed schools that they wish to attend.
I thank the Senator for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on this matter and to outline the current position.