Seanad debates

Friday, 19 December 2008

Schools Building Projects

Capitation Grants.

7:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue. It is an annual for me, as I have been raising the last matter on the Adjournment before Christmas for many years now. I appreciate that the Minister of State has been here all day, and I know this is the last sitting day before Christmas, but we never seem to be able to get a Minister into this House from the relevant Department. I know the Minister of State is very familiar with educational issues, and I know it is no bother to him. I can understand why the relevant Ministers might not be available on the last sitting day before Christmas. The last time I raised a matter on the Adjournment, all three matters related to education. None of the many Ministers in the Department of Education and Science was in attendance for that debate, however.

I would like to speak about the future funding of Protestant post-primary education, which is a serious issue. I regret to say that the Government is displaying a level of discrimination against Protestant secondary schools. Various Governments have traditionally adhered to an unwritten understanding that special provision needs to be made for the education of Protestant children in post-primary schools with a Protestant ethos. It could be argued that it became a written understanding in the 1960s. That position ceased to exist, unfortunately, when the Minister announced on budget day that he had decided to cut a number of grants that were directly aimed at Church of Ireland schools. I refer in particular to the abolition of the special service support grant, which the Department claims will lead to a saving of €2.8 million. This decision will have a hugely detrimental effect on Protestant post-primary schools across the country.

I understand that there are 21 fee-paying Church of Ireland secondary schools in this country. The largest of them is Kilkenny College, which is in my home county. It is a fine educational institution with a long and distinguished history. The school received funding from the Department of Education and Science and the Protestant community when it moved to a new campus within the last 15 or 20 years. This fantastic school in Kilkenny, which has over 800 students, is the only Protestant post-primary school in the south east. It is not exclusively Church of Ireland or Protestant. It is not an elite school. It operates in a similar way to a community school. While Protestant children are prioritised on entry, many members of the school body have other religious backgrounds. I understand that approximately 550 of the college's 800 students are boarders. Some 450 boarders, almost all of whom are Protestant children, receive support grants from the Department to help to meet their educational needs. The grants help to fulfil the desire of the students and their parents to get an education that is in line with the Protestant ethos.

Many people have an image of private and fee-paying schools as dealing exclusively with people from the upper echelons of society, or with sizeable household incomes. For the most part, we are not talking about people in that category in the case of Kilkenny College. Approximately 450 students at the college receive assistance from the Department of Education and Science to enable them to attend the school. It has been brought to my attention that it is projected in the school's budget that it will have a deficit of almost €250,000 next year as a result of the cutbacks that were announced in the budget. It is obvious that the major cutback in this instance is the abolition of the special service support grant. It would be difficult for any school to find €250,000 to offset a budgetary deficit.

I hope the Minister and the Department can reconsider this decision. When free education was introduced in the late 1960s, the then Minister, Donogh O'Malley, entered into an agreement with the Church of Ireland authorities to ensure that education with a Protestant ethos would be provided to schoolchildren from such a background. Many Protestant pupils have to go to boarding school because the Protestant community is dispersed throughout the country. Successive Governments have supported schools catering for such children as a kind of quid pro quo for the free education that is provided in Catholic schools. It seems that the Government has brought an end to that arrangement.

The Church of Ireland community in my locality is made up of quiet, honest and hard-working people. They do not tend to get worked up about educational issues. There is an understandable level of anger in the community in respect of this issue. The people in question think their community is being singled out. Approximately 10% of non-Protestant post-primary schools will be affected by the cutbacks announced by the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in the recent budget, whereas all 21 of this country's Protestant post-primary schools will be affected. To me, that smacks of some form of discrimination. Given that the Minister has rowed back on some of the education cutbacks that were announced on budget day, perhaps he will be in a position to reconsider this matter next year. Many Protestant post-primary schools are facing an uncertain future in light of the budgetary shortfalls that are projected. A couple of them are in danger of closing as a result of what was announced in the budget. I hope the Minister of State will have some positive news for the schools as we enter 2009.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Minister of State with special responsibility for Active Citizenship; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am afraid I have been around the education sector for long enough to remember the genesis of the arrangement to which Senator Phelan referred. I am fairly familiar with the issue. There are 56 fee-charging second level schools in the State, of which 21 are Protestant, two are inter-denominational and one is Jewish. The rest of the fee-paying schools have a Catholic ethos. The Minister wishes to emphasise that no changes in the Protestant block grant are proposed. Protestant fee paying schools will continue to receive the Protestant block grant, which amounts to €6.25 million in the current school year. This payment, which covers capitation, tuition and boarding grants, is distributed by the secondary education committee among needier Protestant children. Applications are made by parents to the central Protestant churches authority, which distributes funds to individual schools on the basis of pupil need following a means test. The retention of this grant demonstrates the importance the Minister for Education and Science continues to attach to ensuring that Protestant students can attend schools that reflect their denominational ethos. In addition, Protestant fee-paying schools have traditionally been paid a range of support service grants that the Catholic fee-paying schools do not receive. The purpose of such grants is 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-paying schools in 2009. The decision to remove the grants was made against the backdrop of the difficult international economic situation. In such circumstances, the education budget for 2009 inevitably includes a number of measures that involve curtailing expenditure.

The Minister for Education and Science met representatives of the Protestant churches, led by Archbishop John Neill, on 13 November last. The Minister confirmed his budget day announcement that the Protestant block grant would continue to be paid and expressed his willingness to respond positively to any proposals on how it could be better targeted to meet the needs of the Protestant community, having regard to its dispersed population and the need to sustain Protestant schools. The representatives of the Protestant church expressed concerns about the needs of the dispersed minority population. They referred in particular to the need to sustain schools in the Protestant tradition that directly serve that dispersed population in certain areas of the country. The Minister expressed his willingness to respond positively to any proposals that might be made to his Department to enable the available funding to be focused and adjusted to more effectively meet the twin objectives of providing access for individuals and sustaining the dispersed schools they wish to attend. The bishops indicated that they would reflect on how the funding the Minister is continuing to make available might best be deployed to meet the needs of their schools. Further meetings may be scheduled to develop and build on this useful and constructive discussion. No specific proposals have been forwarded to the Department. I thank the Senator for giving me an opportunity to outline to the House the position with respect to grant aid for Protestant schools.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I would like to briefly mention a reasonable alternative suggestion that has been made by Kilkenny College. The school authorities have suggested that a pro rata increase in the block grant, which is distributed by the Department of Education and Science to Protestant schools, could be provided for. Such additional moneys could be given to students through the Protestant schools. The problem faced by Kilkenny College is that it serves a small community that is spread over a large area, including an interesting part of County Kilkenny that is not very far from my locality. A large number of English people came to work in the coal mines near Castlecomer many years ago. As a result, the largest rural Church of Ireland community in Ireland is in the Clogh, Castlecomer and Moneenroe area. The families in question are not very wealthy. That is the difficulty in which Kilkenny College finds itself. Many other schools around the country are in a similar position. I ask the Department to increase the block grant on a pro rata basis from next year, so that schools like Kilkenny College might be in a position to help their students.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Minister of State with special responsibility for Active Citizenship; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I will be happy to convey that request to the Minister.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the staff and Members of the House and wish them a happy Christmas.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.20 p.m. sine die.