Can we save money or reduce inequality? And who is subsidising whom?
In my last post (Leaving Cert 2020 is cancelled), I referred to the inequality of outcome that exists across schools. It is a theme that has been echoed by other commentators in other fora. A frequent focus of such discussions is the question of whether the State should continue to provide funding to Ireland’s fee-charging schools.
Apart from the obvious expense to the State, this funding is controversial both because fee-charging schools cater to a greater proportion of Ireland’s wealthy and because they consistently dominate so-called “school leagues tables” that track the proportion of students who go on to third level.
Those in favour of ending the “subsidy” paid to fee-charging schools argue that doing so would (i) save the State money and (ii) reduce educational inequality. These arguments are worth interrogating.
Before we do, however, we might first challenge the claim that the State is “subsidising” fee-charging schools at all. The State does provide the funding to pay the salaries of these schools’ teachers but at a higher pupil teacher ratio (23:1) than in “free” schools (19:1). The State also must pay running and maintenance costs for free schools – costs that are covered by parents in fee-charging schools. The precise figures are disputed but it is clear that a student at a fee-charging schools costs the State less – not more – than a student in a free school. The difference in these costs is made up by parents. If there is a subsidy, it is from fee-paying parents to the State – not the other way around.
Now let us address the claim that withdrawing funding from fee-charging schools will save the State money. It is obvious that the first-order effect of this will be that the State will reduce its costs. However, any net savings will accrue only to the extent that parents continue to send their children to fee-charging schools. It is far from certain how many will do so.
With the loss of State funding, fee-charging schools will be forced to respond by increasing fees. As with any service, as costs increase the number of people willing to pay those costs will reduce. Many parents will simply withdraw their children from fee-charging schools and send them into the free education system. For each of these children, costs to the State will increase.
The tragedy is that this first group of students forced to leave friends and familiar surroundings will include the children of the parents who were hardest-pressed to afford fees in the first place – the parents who stretched themselves furthest and sacrificed the most, just to give their children the best start in life that they could afford.
It will come as little comfort to this first cohort that they will not be the last. With the initial wave of student withdrawals, fee-income will reduce while running and maintenance costs will remain fixed. Schools will be forced to respond by raising fees further, precipitating a second wave of student withdrawals, leading to further fee increases – and on and on it goes until only the children of a “core” of very wealthy and largely price-insensitive parents are left.
With each wave arriving into the free education system, costs to the State increase. Some fee-charging schools may find that they are not viable with the student numbers who remain and will simply transfer (running costs and all) into the State-funded education system.
The extent to which any saving by the State would be eroded by an increased number of students transferring to the free system is, of course, uncertain. However, anyone who tells you that they know, for sure, how much the State will save overall or even that they are certain the State won’t end up losing money is either a fool or thinks that you are.
We now turn to the question of whether removing State funding from fee-charging schools will reduce educational inequality. Firstly, I should be clear that I think it is entirely reasonable to argue that our education system should seek to realise equality of opportunity for all students. However, we should not pretend that the proposals at hand would level the playing field by improving educational standards for the disadvantaged. Instead whatever greater level of equality is envisaged will only be achieved by removing choice and opportunity from some families.
In any case, it is far from certain that attending a fee-charging school is – alone and in-and-of-itself – responsible for giving students an educational advantage. There is research to suggest that better outcomes in, for example, the Leaving certificate are merely correlated with and not caused by attendance at such schools.
Remember that, given your parents can afford fees, you are far more likely to come from a financially secure household. Given your parents are willing to pay for your education they are more likely to value it and to encourage you to do so too. You are more likely to consider college as an option because your parents, aunts, uncles and cousins all went to third level. You are more likely to have a quiet place to study. You are more likely to enjoy good nutrition.
All of these things confer an advantage and none of these advantages will disappear if the State stops funding fee-charging schools.
Furthermore, parents who pay school fees also tend to pay for grinds and tutors and Summers in the Gaeltacht or in France. Parents who might no-longer be able to afford to send their children to now-more-expensive fee-paying schools would still have plenty of opportunities to pump money into their children’s education and, with the money they save on fees, they would have more cash to spend. Some of that cash could even be saved for a time after secondary school to be put towards, say, a sought-after master’s degree.
The bottom line is that parents who have the means and the determination to buy their children an educational advantage will have no problem finding ways to do just that. Removing funding from fee-charging schools will not change this reality and will, in the end, do little to level the playing field.
Removing State funding for fee-charging schools will satisfy the begrudgers but it offers no certainty of reducing costs to the State and little prospect of improving educational equality.