Seanad debates

Thursday, 7 May 2009

12:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I want to give a few moments of my time to Senator Twomey.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. I am sorry that the Minister for Education and Science is not here to discuss this very important issue which has raised its head in recent months. For the sake of a saving which is paltry in the context of the current crisis, the Minister has taken a course of action that will disproportionately and deeply affect a particular community. In the haste to cut and run, he found what he supposed was a soft target and saved the grand total of €2.8 million. Rashly, he has overturned an established settlement and angered a community. I do not accuse the Minister of ill-intent but rather a lack of reflection and rash action, and I urge him to take time to reflect more carefully on whether this is a saving we can afford.

Since the foundation of the State, men and women of goodwill of all parties have striven to ensure that this nation would be a comfortable and welcoming home to all its citizens. At times we have failed in our duty to the Protestant community in this regard, but on the whole a young and poor country did its best. One of the success stories has been the recognition and support given to those schools which reflect the faith and values of our minorities. When the then Minister, Donogh O'Malley, introduced free education he understood that, for it to be a real rather than notional achievement, special regard would have to be given to those churches whose membership was spread thinly but more or less evenly throughout the State.

Our Constitution separates church and State but it also recognises the role of faith in society and the central right of parents to have their children educated in schools that share their values. As Deputy Hanafin said when she was Minister for Education and Science, "Since the foundation of the State, all parties and all Governments have supported such schools, largely to protect choice and the ethos of minorities." The attack by the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, on Protestant schools will have consequences which will make that choice more notional than practical. We will see a reduction in teacher numbers, an increase in class sizes, a diminution of subject choice and, ultimately, an increase in fees. The corrosive effect on the quality of education being offered by schools which today are excellent would be disastrous.

The Minister is quoted as saying he sees no reason that Protestant fee-paying schools should be treated differently from Roman Catholic ones. If that is his position, he needs to think again. Does he truly believe the same variety of school choice is available to Protestant parents as to those who send their children to Clongowes Wood College or Blackrock College? What about Wexford, Offaly, Laois, Clare, Tipperary, Kerry, Mayo, Leitrim, Longford and Westmeath? Half the counties in the Republic have no Protestant secondary schools. Does the Minister really believe this is analogous to Roman Catholic schools?

Outside the family, schools are the most important vehicle that exists for a minority to maintain its confessional identity and cohesion as a faith community. If this State is to be truly pluralist and value diversity in practice and not simply in theory, it cannot afford to be so careless in its treatment of Protestant schools.

There are those who welcome this measure. There are those who see it as a victory for a change in the organisation of Irish education. Before being flattered by siren voices, I advise the Minister to examine the sources of such support and then to sup with a long spoon. Some hope this move presages the first in a series that would question the role of faith in our schools of any colour. We have heard the usual suspects advocate the nationalisation and standardisation of all our schools. They call for the destruction of denominational education as sectarian and out of step with modernity. They disingenuously persuade us that excluding religion from our schools is a neutral choice rather than the explicit value judgment that it is. These most illiberal of liberals would take choice from the hands of parents where it properly resides, and give it over to a single State apparatus. The separation of church and State protects the state from theocracy but also protects the churches from the interference of the State. By extension, it protects the religion and practice of the citizen from control of the State. Just as we do not want the State in our bedrooms nor do we want it in our churches. Pluralism does not lie in the suppression of all difference and a McDonald's system of schooling, always the same everywhere. Difference is not dissonance. In the life of a nation as in music, variety of notes, tones and pitch makes for melody and true harmony. Pluralism is in the happy and respectful co-existence of diversity. I was in Gorey recently where there are five thriving primary schools, two Catholic, one Church of Ireland, a Gaelscoil and an Educate Together. That is the joy of our parent-led system which can offer real value choice to parents. I believe that with time this kind of choice will extend across the country and give us an even better and more vibrant educational system.

That will only happen if the Minister and this Government commit to the value of diversity. It will only happen if the Minister believes the ethos of a school is intrinsic to it and is just as important as maths or physics in a child's education. As Dean Inge said, "The aim of education is the knowledge not of fact, but of values". For many Protestant parents, clearly the ethos of the school their children attend is far from a tack-on or a mere adjunct but lies at the core of the education they wish for their off-spring. I urge the Minister to think again and respect the needs of these parents and children.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Fine Gael)
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I wish to comment briefly on this issue, which is very important. We have been through recessions before and we have all made sacrifices before. It has been accepted always that the Protestant minority in this country has a particular ethos which has been protected since the foundation of this State despite all the trials and tribulations we have experienced. The support given by the State to Protestant schools is not elitism but an acceptance, even a tolerance, of religious diversity, not only in education but in our society as a whole.

The Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government took this action and therefore I must ask whether there has been an official change in policy within the Department of Education and Science such as we have not seen since the foundation of this State. I would like the Minister of State to give a comprehensive answer to the question asked by Senator John Paul Phelan.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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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.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I realise the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, does not deal specifically with this issue but was answering the question today. I do not accept a word of what was said. The reality is that the Protestant community is small and spread throughout the country. The majority of communities in Ireland do not offer Protestant education. I speak in particular about an area I know, Kilkenny. Kilkenny College is the biggest Protestant boarding school in the country and students come from all over to attend it because both parents and students want an education in a Protestant ethos to which they are entitled. I understand the retention of the Protestant block grant although I do not believe the Government should take credit for retaining it.

The €2.8 million quoted is a paltry amount. To make such a saving at this juncture sends out an appalling signal to the minority community in this country. I speak as a past pupil of the Augustinian Good Counsel College in New Ross. Throughout the country there is a large variety of Catholic secondary schools and a diversity of other secondary schools, including community and VEC schools. However, when it comes to seeking a second-level education with a Protestant ethos that diversity does not exist. The removal of this grant, namely, these additional funds which covered a range of support services as the Minister of State noted, will lead to staff being laid off. I know this will happen in Kilkenny College where it will lead also to increased class sizes and to a less diverse education for students.

It is a direct attack on the Protestant community in this country and I regret the Government sought this target when it was looking for cutbacks in the budget. I understand the financial situation the country is in but to single out a particular community for such a grievous assault was unnecessary, unwarranted and downright wrong. In the further discussions he will have with the Church of Ireland Board of Education, I hope the Minister may be in a position to look at this. The one positive note in the Minister of State's reply was that the Minister is open to suggestions. Perhaps there will be some light at the end of the tunnel arising from those future negotiations.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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As Senator Phelan pointed out, the public purse is under pressure. Savings had to be made across all sections of Exchequer spending and education was not spared although it was protected more than other areas. The Minister has expressed his willingness to consider any proposals that might come to his Department concerning the targeting of resources made available via the block grant. This might ensure that, despite the dispersed nature of education in Protestant schools, those concerned could come up with proposals which the Minister might consider.