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Why the Funding of Second-Level Education is Inequitable

The funding for voluntary secondary schools needs to change to make it equal to the existing funding for vocational or community /comprehensive schools - Opinion Piece by Gerry Bennett, Chief Executive, The Edmund Rice Schools Trust.  Published in the Irish Times, Thursday 30th October, 2014

There is an extraordinary inequity in the funding of second-level education. Some 52 per cent of second-level schools in Ireland are voluntary, which means they are privately owned and managed. They are generally under the trusteeship of religious communities, boards of governors, individuals or trust bodies.

If you are a parent in such a school, you are being short-changed. Although the vast majority of these schools are technically non fee-paying, you are very likely to find yourself paying a voluntary contribution or having to fundraise to help your child’s school make ends meet.

By contrast, if you had a child in a vocational school or a community/comprehensive school, you would have a much lighter burden (although they also sometimes find themselves having to fundraise and make voluntary contributions albeit to a lesser extent).

Why is this? The State may argue that every school – be it voluntary, vocational or community/comprehensive – receives roughly the same grant per child. This disguises the reality. Out of this capitation grant, voluntary schools have to pay a range of costs, the effect of which is to reduce that grant by about a third.

The vocational and community/comprehensive schools do not pay these charges out of their capitation grant but have them paid centrally by the State. Only voluntary schools have to pay for insurance, lighting, security and secretarial services, among other costs. The vocational and community/comprehensive schools have these costs paid for them.

Funding disparity

The inequity we are speaking about here is that voluntary State-funded secondary schools have a third of their pupil capitation grant side-tracked to essential services, whereas other State-funded schools – the vocational schools and community/comprehensive – do not.

Those managing secondary schools have long known that something was not right here. The issue was highlighted a year ago when the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published a report on the governance and funding of second-level schools.

Its findings “indicate a disparity in the funds available to, and the costs to be covered by, voluntary secondary, vocational and community/ comprehensive schools ... As a result, voluntary secondary schools are more reliant on other sources of income, including fees, fundraising, renting out premises and income from the Trust or other patron body”.

The ESRI report showed that an average of 12 per cent of all income in voluntary secondary schools comes from parental contributions, compared to just 5 per cent in community/comprehensive schools.

A further disparity of expenditure for voluntary schools is the cost of funding the trustee function – a function whose duties and responsibilities are set out by the Education Act, 1998. This essential element at the heart of any school is also – as regards State funding – treated differently between the types of schools. The ESRI notes vocational schools “combine management and trusteeship functions and, as such, receive State funding which is delivered by block grant”.

Voluntary schools do not benefit in this way. If “the trustee” of your school is the State, the taxpayer funds this function. If you have some other trustee – be it non-denominational, multidenominational or religious ethosbased – the State does not fund these core services. Again, the State short-changes the pupils in voluntary schools.

No student should suffer because of inequalities in how schools are funded. The funding for voluntary secondary schools needs to change to make it equal to the existing funding for vocational or community/comprehensive schools.

We have a system of funding schools which is riddled with anomalies, a confusion inherited from an age long gone. Where we now have unfairness and obscurity, the children and parents of a modern Ireland deserve equity and transparency.

The Edmund Rice Schools Trust, which is trustee to 94 schools, has discussed this matter directly with the trustees of other schools. None of us has received an adequate account from the State as to how the present system has been allowed to muddle on.

We have also written to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection and we hope that further discussions with the committee will make use of the groundwork carried out already by the ESRI.

The signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic promised to “cherish all the children of the nation equally”. We should be doing that now and we should honour this pledge before we see Budget 2016.

Gerry Bennett is Chief Executive of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust

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