There were moments this year when Mark Boobbyer, warden of St Columba’s College in Dublin, wondered if the school would ever reopen. The risk of Covid-19 spreading through any school is high; the stakes are higher still for a 170-year-old boarding school that is home to hundreds of pupils.
While most of the school’s 350-plus students are Irish, a significant number are from European countries as well as Hong Kong, China and Nigeria.
To help keep the virus at bay, a series of new rules were introduced.
International students were required to isolate for five days and get tested; boutique caravans were set up as isolation rooms in the event of an outbreak; new rules were put in place requiring borders to keep within bubbles; gatherings in the dining room were limited and socially distanced.
The school had planned for major disruption but, so far, it has not recorded a single case on the premises. It turns out that boarding schools – with their controlled environments – may be safer than most other settings.
“We have relatively few pupils coming in and so it means that the chances of Covid coming in are reduced. Once you keep it out when pupils return, you’ve got a good chance of keeping it out.”
No positive cases have been recorded in most of the country’s 20-plus boarding schools due, they say, to a range of precautionary measures.
However, there has been anger and frustration among private schools – and boarding schools in particular – at the Department of Education’s decision to refuse the fee-charging sector automatic access to its €365 million Covid-19 school reopening funds.
The State is not funding our facilities. The salaries of most teachers are being funded, but not at the same rate as other schools
The initial plan was to limit these funds to State-funded schools only. These rules were later eased to allow private schools access funds where they could “demonstrate difficulties in implementing necessary control measures outlined in the plan”.
The department has said fee-charging schools have since received about €2 million in Covid-related supports.
The sector, however, says it is still excluded from a range of other costs such as hiring additional supervision staff for break times.
Boobbyer argues there can be a bias against the fee-charging sector due to a perception that they do not need funds.
“Some may say, ‘Why are these private schools with all their facilities being funded by the taxpayer?’ They’re not,” he says.
“The State is not funding our facilities. The salaries of most teachers are being funded, but not at the same rate as other schools.”
Other private school principals share his frustration. Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin 6, says fee-charging schools have had to “put up a bit of a fight” to get what supports they have.
“We feel that every single child in the country, no matter whether their parents chose to send their child to a fee-paying school or not, should be entitled to the same funding during a pandemic like this,” she says.
“Pandemics don’t distinguish between fee-paying schools and other schools, and we had to go to quite considerable expense ourselves, to make sure that the girls and the teachers were safe.”
Edward Gash, headmaster of Midleton College in Co Cork – which also has boarding students – has found the attitude “disappointing”.
“The school has been here 300 years and we have been part of the education system all that time, so to hear that we weren’t going to get any funding was very disheartening for teachers, students and parents,” he said.
The fact that the school has not received additional State funding for supervision and substitution duties also rankles.
“One of the most difficult times for schools for providing a safe space would be break time and lunchtime.
“We’ve had to increase the number of break times and lunchtimes we have as well to reduce gathering and we didn’t receive any additional funding to help us to manage that.”
Fee-charging schools received a total of more than €100 million in public funding this year
A number of school principals in the fee-charging sector, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was huge anger over the move.
“Our parents are taxpayers, our teachers are State employees, why are they any less worthy of protection than others?” asked one principal.
Another said some schools in the fee-charging sector have struggled to find the funds to adapt classrooms and access other supports: “We simply don’t have piles of spare cash lying around. Many schools like ours just about get by.”
Among the wider public, though, there is limited sympathy for private schools.
There is a wider debate over whether the sector should receive State support in the first place.
Fee-charging schools received a total of more than €100 million in public funding this year. The vast bulk went on salaries for teachers and special needs assistants.
At the same time, the most expensive schools are charging up to €8,600 a year for day pupils and in excess of €20,000 a year for boarding.
In relation to whether fee-paying schools should receive State funding whatsoever, Ennis believes that cutting funding for these schools would create a situation with “very few fee-paying schools and they would be very elitist. I think it’s always been a healthy phenomenon in the Irish system that the department continues to pay for the salaries of the teachers.”
As far as Boobbyer is concerned, the fees for many private schools reflect the fact that students have meals, supervised study and access to extra-curricular activities.
Many of the parents he sees seeking a private education are “gridlock parents” who like the idea of being able to provide their children with education, sports, other activities and study under the one roof.
“If you are working parents and have two or three children who need to be transported to school or basketball practice or music, there really is something to be said for having that in one place,” he says. “It saves travel, time and stress.”
Gash agrees that if State funding to fee-paying schools was cut, many would be unable to provide the type of education they do now.
“If we had to go completely private, it would exclude a lot of students from being able to access a school of this ethos, and would reduce parental choice. We are a social enterprise, we’re not a money-making operation.”