For decades, disproportionate numbers of students from private secondary schools have advanced to the most sought-after university courses in the country.

Many parents believe attendance in such fee-charging schools is a fast-track to educational success, and pay tens of thousands of euro for the child's place.

The schools also receive money from the State.

In 2021, €121m in public funding was provided to fee-charging schools, much of it to cover salaries for teachers and special needs assistants.

Some opposition parties have called for an end to the State payments. They say it is forcing low-income taxpayers to subsidise private schools, and compounding social inequality.

This week, research published in the Irish Educational Studies journal conducted by Dr Michael O'Connell in University College Dublin concluded that going to a private school does not in itself significantly improve performance in the Leaving Certificate.

It found that students who attended fee-charging schools were already ahead in tests conducted towards the end of primary school.

As part of The Conversation from RTÉ's Upfront with Katie Hannon, we asked two informed people to join our WhatsApp group, to debate the merits of private schools and the provision of public funding.

Barbara Ennis is the principal of Alexandra College, a fee-charging boarding and day school for girls in south Dublin.

Gary Gannon TD is education spokesperson for the Social Democrats political party.

Gary Gannon TD: Barbara, I'll start where it seems most obvious: having the luxury to afford the fees to send your child to a private school is an investment in their future. It pays off quickly, with students from private schools achieving the highest proportion of places in high point courses in universities. Why should parents unable to make a similar investment in their child subsidise that choice to the sum of €121 million?


Barbara Ennis: Your question seems simple to answer. It's not. I'm not going to trot out the well-worn arguments about how much fee-charging schools save the exchequer, but take a more nuanced approach. All education, no matter its source, is an investment in a student's future. The best predictor of a student's ensuing success is his/her mother's own education. Removing subsidies from fee-charging schools cedes all power to those schools, removes State oversight and will inevitably lead to exacerbated advantage for students in these schools.


Gary Gannon TD: I'm not sure I understand your point. Are you saying that State subsidies are somehow holding students in fee paying schools back - to the extent that they will have an "exacerbated advantage" if they are removed and state "oversight" is therefore removed?


Barbara Ennis: No, Gary. I am saying that if subsidies are removed from fee charging schools, those schools who choose not to join the free system will inevitably be liberated from State oversight, which I think is dangerous; those schools will charge inordinately high fees; the students who attend those schools will have more advantages, following your logic that "students from private schools" achieve the "highest proportion of places in high point courses in universities".


Gary Gannon TD: It isn't just my logic that students from private schools receive these places to a disproportionate degree, it's a fact born out every single year in the Irish Times Feeder Schools list for example.

To suggest that the State continues to fund this inequity to the extent that it has, because to do otherwise may result in some private schools removing themselves from oversight, is a very interesting take.

That in the absence of State funding, a private school may choose to charge "inordinate fees" would again be a choice for the parent/guardian as to whether they wish to pay that or not.

The purpose of our discussion is whether the State should continue to subsidise these choices to the extent we have, and there seems very little justification for the taxpayer to continue to support others who wish to lock-in and replicate privilege.


Barbara Ennis: The recent empirical research carried out under Dr O'Connell in UCD debunks the veracity of the far-from-empirical 'League Tables' of the Irish Times. The research suggests that students from fee-charging schools "often from affluent backgrounds… are already benefiting from extra resources at home". Therefore, subsidising fee-charging schools is not 'replicating privilege'. It is curbing it. Privilege precedes these subsidies whose function is to avoid extreme elitism.

Moving the discussion on, look at what has happened in the UK with public schools? Elitism is endemic, and social layering there is far more complex than here. Do you want that for your own country?

Empowering schools with the necessary resources for the benefit of all students, whether within the fee-charging or the free fees scheme is what is most urgent. Setting one sector against another deflects from the focus of creating a more equal society. Your focus is on the wrong thing. I have some interesting ideas about how we can harmonise.


Gary Gannon TD: I'm not sure the findings of Dr O'Connell coming anywhere close to debunking the reality that private schools aid in the purchasing of life-long privilege.

Nobody has ever suggested that students who go to fee paying schools are inherently more intelligent than students in the public school system.

What is the case, is that fee paying schools are simply a way wealthier parents - in the majority of cases, parents who themselves were able to avail of private schools - are replicating their advantage for their children to the detriment of others, in the points race for the best university places.

The State has invested and will continue to invest massively in free fees for all students at third level in the pursuit of equality. That private schools feature most prominently in the profile of students who access the highest points courses in universities undermines this endeavour entirely.

All students are expected to sit a Leaving Certificate on equal terms. Having a two-tier system - where one group of students is advantaged by consequence of their parents' ability to pay more - completely destroys that concept of fairness.


Barbara Ennis: Why are you deliberately side-stepping my points and repeating yourself? Continuing to subsidise fee-charging schools is a smart move. It preserves the system from the ravages of the patricians. It recognises the organic development of the educational landscape across time, which has led to the diversity of school sectors that mutually co-exist and make up the education system in the State.

The history of the State subsidies of fee-charging schools cannot be forgotten. Protestant and Catholic establishments gave their lands and buildings to the State, free of charge, to set up schools at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, when the State had no resources to so do. Without this generosity and foresight, there would have been no schools to attend.

Inequality is a societal problem. It needs to be tackled at grassroots level, by breaking the cycle of poverty and educating parents, particularly mothers, who did not benefit from a proper education themselves.

Affluent parents are not the cause of inequality. Subsidies to fee-charging schools aren't the problem either. The responsibility lies with repeated Government and Opposition TDs' failures to tackle poverty and the construction of ghettoised housing estates.


Gary Gannon TD: I'm still a little unsure of the points you are intending to make. The purpose of this debate was why the State should continue to fund private schools to the tune of €121 million a year.

Nobody has accused affluent parents of being the cause of societal inequality - the point remains that the rest of society shouldn't have to pitch-in for the advantage their children attain from private schools.

I am not even advocating banning private schools. Expressed simply, I just feel that should a parent wish to educate a child privately, they should do so without the State contributing to the advantage that such a luxury will give to their child.

There is no altruism to the Churches involvement in education - doing so on their part has contributed to a scenario where generations of Irish people have had their educational experience dictated by the ethos of the religious orders, who maintain patronage over our schools.

Tackling poverty is absolutely the job of government. That requires resourcing and intervention at a very early stage in a child's development.

I know exactly where I'd reallocate that €121 million currently being invested in the private schooling of our most wealthiest cohorts.


Barbara Ennis: I understand you, but you don’t understand me. Your view is simplistic. Mine is nuanced.

You’d take the €121m and invest it in students who need it. I would too.

I’m saying that this is an unwise move as the money released from removing the subsidies is a drop in the ocean of what is needed to provide an equal education for all.

I have been at pains to point out why these subsidies should remain:

1. It avoids extreme elitism

2. Fees of schools (minus subsidies) would escalate

3. This will create a three-tier system - students who come from deprived backgrounds; those from affluent backgrounds whose cultural capital is enormous, and those for whom fees of any amount are affordable.

4. The schools who continue to charge fees will be free of State scrutiny and no State-paid teachers will be employed in these schools. There will be no checks and balances, and these schools will produce entitled graduates who will haunt the corridors of power through money, networks and the school tie syndrome.

5. Inequality will increase. The disadvantaged will be worse off.

Subsidising fee-charging schools should continue but a new model needs to be considered. This is where you and I can find middle ground, if that’s what you want. But if you stick to your mantra, nothing will change or improve.


Gary Gannon TD: I think we can have a shared passion for education, and a common outcome but we are also allowed to simply disagree on how that is achieved.

1. That the current system of State subsidies to private schools is a bulwark to "extreme elitism" is a bit of stretch. In their current form, students from private schools are already over-represented in our highest points courses in universities. The schools themselves have progression rates that exceed 100% (taken deferrals into account) each year.

They offer more favourable terms to teachers than that available in public schools. They have very obvious alumni networks that provide access to internships and job opportunities to their students. How much more elite can they get?

2. Fees escalating is again an issue for the school and the parent - the State should have no bearing on this.

3. There already exists a three-tier system: DEIS schools, non-DEIS schools, and private schools.

[Editor’s Note: A DEIS school is a school in receipt of additional support and funding from the Department of Education, as part of an effort to address social or economic disadvantage locally.]

Only one has a cohort of students that is advantaged by the wealth of their parents, to the detriment of others, in the points race of our Leaving Cert.

On your fourth point – you say that fee-charging schools would be free of State scrutiny - I’m genuinely not sure the vast majority of people in this State would notice the difference.

5. A recent Barnardos study found that 30% of parents were skipping meals in order that their children did not go without basic provisions. €121 million invested into a full public schools meal programme would go some way towards countering that extreme of inequality.

At its core here though, paying for private schools allows one cohort of student an advantage in the points race that unfortunately defines our system of education.

It is for this reason that private schools are more prevalent at secondary level than at primary.

To continue this and deny the reality is a folly that does a disservice to all but those who benefit from it.


Barbara Ennis: Are you interested in looking at a new model for fee-charging subsidised schools? You yourself benefitted from such a model through TAP.

[Editors’ Note: TAP is the Trinity Access Programme. It is run by Trinity College Dublin and assists students from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities to study at the university. Gary Gannon was born in Dublin’s north inner city and went through TAP after being let go from his job as an apprentice plumber during the economic crash.]


Gary Gannon TD: TAP is an incredible model but it’s not really comparable to that of the private school system. Without question, I am massively fortunate to have benefitted from the programme but it takes in fifty students a year and is entirely free to enter. How does that compare to a fee-paying model?


Barbara Ennis: It could be. Here’s my proposal. If you can’t/won’t subscribe to it, then we will have to agree to disagree in the most amicable of fashions.

I have a proposal for a new model of fee-charging, subsidised schools which could look like this, and could be referred to as a hybrid model:

- 15% of all places in fee-charging schools would be reserved for those whose parents can’t pay fees. No fees would apply to this cohort. This would help break the cycle of lack of opportunity and give underprivileged students a chance to benefit from the cultural capital and other advantages of fee-charging schools

- Extreme elitism would be avoided

- The State would reinstate the capitation grant for the 15% of students who don’t pay fees.

- The fee-charging schools would make all extras (like Speech and Drama, public speaking, instrumental music, solo-singing, tennis lessons, English-as-a-new-language lessons, after school study and much more) available to this 15% of students free of charge.

- The State would continue to pay the teachers’ salaries.

Now that’s a win/win.


Gary Gannon TD: Thank you for the discussion Barbara. I know that many private schools already do great work through their scholarship programs, and I don’t for a second doubt the benefit of such an opportunity to those students and to their families.

As a person passionate about educational equality as a whole, I really cannot step away from the advantage one cohort of students can glean from a parents’ capacity to spend more than what other families in the State can.

Ultimately though, I aspire for a society where our public schools would have all of the advantages that private schools currently enjoy - appropriate student-to-teacher ratios, technology-based learning, effective career guidance, extra-curricular facilities - and that can definitely be a shared destination for us both.

Have a great day. Lovely to meet you and thank you so much for engaging to the extent you have. Let’s grab a coffee soon.


Barbara Ennis: A pleasure, Gary. The Nordic model is the best. Maybe we’ll get there in 50 years!

Read last week's edition of The Conversation, where we asked if the government's mother-and-baby home redress scheme is fair, here.