Head to Head: Should we ban private schools?

YES by Sara Rafter

Education plays a vital role in shaping the values and attitudes of young people. Students spend their days in a single school environment which undoubtedly moulds their perception of the world around them and often dictates the course of students’ third-level educations and careers.

The two-tiered education system in Ireland has long been a topic of contention. The Irish system is unique in comparison to those abroad as private schools continue to receive funding from the state. The majority of teachers in private schools are paid by the Department of Education, just like teachers in public schools. Fees paid to private schools are used to employ additional teachers, lowering class sizes and allowing niche subjects to be taught. Fees also allow private schools to offer one of their unique selling points, superior facilities and a diverse range of extracurricular activities.

Private schools do not provide an inherently better education besides having smaller class sizes and better facilities. Teachers are trained in the same institutions and required to teach an identical curriculum as those in public schools. While statistically speaking, the standard of attainment in private schools may be higher than that of public schools, this cannot be solely attributed to the quality of education provided by fee-paying schools. It must be acknowledged that it is largely upper middle-class parents who choose to invest in private schooling because they value their children’s education and can afford to pay for supplementary benefits. This creates a network of families who are driven and thoroughly supportive of their children’s education.

There is an expectation that children attending private schools will go on to third-level education. With such high expectations mirrored by their peers, it cannot come as a surprise that a higher proportion of privately educated children progress to top universities. Social class inequalities are heightened by a system in which the wealthy can buy their children a private education which disadvantaged parents simply cannot afford.

Fee-paying schools exist as an alternative to underfunded public schooling. In fact, the state’s continued support of private schools is a blatant admission that the public education system is not fit for purpose. Schools across the country are under-staffed and under-resourced. If the state allocated appropriate funding to all schools, the demand for private schooling would fall instantly. For the most part, Irish private schooling does not come at the exorbitant costs of private schools abroad, and as a result it is more widely accessible to the middle class in Ireland. Parents continue to send their children to fee-paying schools due to growing disenfranchisement with the failings of the public system.

The principal harm of private schooling is that it creates an echo-chamber of middle-class privilege, in which students become oblivious to the real demographics of society. Private schools are often descended from historically religious institutions, including many schools comprised of religious minorities. Many private schools possess a strong religious ethos and may lack cultural, ethnic and class diversity. Private schools promote an elitist, segregated society in which middle class children only associate with one another and have no interaction with those outside of their closed circle.

Banning private schools would weaken class divisions and create schools which are a much more accurate representation of society. Elitist circles would be broken in favour of a system in which motivated children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, would be afforded equal opportunities to excel. Furthermore, rather than resorting to private schooling, the wealthy and influential would be forced to campaign for better allocation of their taxes to education. Rather than supplementing the shortcomings of state funding with fees, parents would be forced to campaign to the government to tackle flaws within the system, which would in turn benefit all children.

The right to free education in Ireland need not be shrouded is so much controversy. The solution is clear; in order to provide improved opportunities to all children, private schooling should be banned in favour of a public system in which regardless of their parents’ earnings, children must attend their local public school. A similar model is in place in Finland, where fee-paying schools have been banned since the 1970s. Every child must attend the regional school, regardless of whether their parents are unemployed or millionaires. This exposes children to different backgrounds and reinforces their common humanity.

As a society we must choose to value the education of every child. We cannot continue to abandon the less well off to a failing system which the wealthy can pay to bypass. The only effective way to ensure the system is reformed is by removing the option to disengage; namely by banning private schools.

Rebuttal by Garrett Kennedy

I agree with a lot of this argument for banning private schools. Despite this, it still seems to lack an awareness of the political trade-offs inherent to doing this. That trade-off is too great to justify it.

We are offered two arguments in opposition to private schools. The first is that public schools are underfunded. I support removing public funding from private schools. That would go some way in freeing up extra money to be invested in public schools. Conversely, banning private schools would not obviously increase general funding for public schools.

The second argument, and probably the more serious, is that private schools enhance class divisions by creating echo chambers. This is true but I do not think this would change drastically with the abolition of private schools. This is because a lot of this class division is also to do with geography. Both public and private schools in Blackrock have richer students than the national average because people who live in Blackrock are generally richer than the national average. This means that regardless of where you live, there will still be some kind of classist echo chamber. It definitely improves things slightly, but I am unconvinced that it is enough to justify the immense political cost.

NO by Garrett Kennedy

Banning private schools is a good idea in theory. If you have rich parents, you start off on a much better footing than people without rich parents. (Parental income is the single best indicator of an individual’s future income.) This is clearly bad and private schools are undoubtedly a significant factor in this being the case. Banning them is theoretically a quick and tidy way of addressing this problem.

Despite this, trying to do this is a bad idea, at least in Ireland. This is because the political costs are too great to justify it. Furthermore, there are other ways to address this inequality which would be slower but also significantly less aggravating to voters the left needs in order to do all the other things it wants to do.

It is important to realise that a policy this radical would be basically impossible to implement in Ireland. The main reason for that is that no matter how well a left-wing party does in the next general election there is very little chance that they will go into government with anyone other than Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. A policy this radical would be a non-starter in such a government.

Even if you could get some kind of left-wing coalition into Leinster House, that could only happen on the backs of many middle-class Dublin people voting for the Greens, Labour or the Social Democrats. Many of these people went to private schools or have children in them. They like private schools. They would be very annoyed if you took them away. There is no way Eamon Ryan would keep his seat in Dublin Bay South if he banned Gonzaga. The left needs these seats if they are to achieve anything through electoral politics.

The best case scenario is that the Greens and a coalition of other parties get into government for one term and pass loads of radical policies, most of which get repealed by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil a year later, and then never get into power again. Conversely, they could get into power and pass less blatantly radical policies which achieve the same goal in the long term, without alienating the entire Dublin middle class.

In order to justify supporting abolishing private schools in any meaningful way, you need to trade it off against every other left-wing policy such a government could implement. Introducing a wealth tax, increasing corporation taxes, or tackling climate change are all things that they could plausibly achieve if they did not do this. It does not seem obvious that banning private schools is more important than all of those other issues.

Even if you specifically want to target generational inequality, there are other ways of doing this which reach the same goal. A good starting point would be to remove public funding for private schools, increase SUSI grants and change the way university admissions work. Introducing interviews and personal statements as part of the admissions process would significantly allow students from less prestigious schools to differentiate themselves despite their potentially lower points. This would also seriously damage the efficacy of point factories like The Institute of Education and The Dublin School of Grinds. That can only be considered a good thing.

Similarly, ideas such as introducing quotas for how many low-income students universities need to accept could be similarly effective with much less controversy. The famously conservative state of Texas has a policy that if you are in the top 6% of your year you qualify for all public universities in the state. This means that talented students are not punished for going to a worse school and the advantages students get from going to good schools are limited significantly. If you can get George Bush to back a policy like that then you can get Fine Gael and their voters to do it.

None of these ideas solve the problem entirely but they go a long way to making it better while not preventing the left from achieving its other goals. I know this is an incredibly cold take but the left needs to be realistic in how it can achieve its goals. Going all out on a single radical policy like banning private schools makes it far harder to actually offer meaningful help to the people who are hurt by private schools.

Rebuttal by Sara Rafter

As is the case with implementing any radical change within a system, it could prove challenging to win support for the banning of private school. Such a measure could be the political death warrant of local TDs in affluent areas served by private schools. Arguably, however, the current government’s failure to combat growing inequality within the education system will come at an even greater political cost in the future if nothing is done.

The suggestion of removing state funding from private schools is one that would serve only to heighten the inaccessibility of private schools. Currently, government funding ensures that fees for Irish private schools are lower than their counterparts overseas. If public funding was revoked then fees would soar and only the exceptionally wealthy would continue to send their children to private schools, creating a more defined wealth gap in education.

Perhaps in an ideal world, a wealth tax could serve as a solution to funding an entirely public education system. If the wealthy were forced to pay higher taxes, and if this money was put towards public education, then rather than supplementing their own children’s education by paying fees to private schools, children from poorer backgrounds would also benefit from increased funding to public education.