“They strive to create rounded students with a well-balanced outlook on life” - Yes!Public schools provide the same education but are more reflective of the real world, writes Helen Sweeney.The whole purpose of education, they say, is to turn mirrors into windows. To guide one from dependence to independence. Indeed, as children we are given the opportunity to learn so that, as adults, we may thrive autonomously.As a ‘free’ school alumnus, there are elements of my social education which have stood me in great stead. Situations shared and lessons learned, so many of which were informed by, if not wholly flowing from, the free-fees nature of my school.Most prominent, perhaps, is the mélange of economic and cultural backgrounds. It could be argued that the texture of society is more aptly reflected in no-fees academies, the social strata blended within the student body.This vibrant, diverse mix portends the kinds of people one encounters in university and later in the workplace. As such, it is preparation for life after the Leaving Cert. It breeds acceptance of people who may have had an upbringing at variance with a person’s own.In an Ireland of financially diverging towns and communities, an increasingly multi-cultural Ireland, isn’t it essential that students be integrated with members of all areas of their community?Public schools tend to be open to this. Dissimilarly, there have been accusations that some private schools welcome feeder-school entrants, while using admittance interviews to weed out candidates with learning disabilities or non-nationals.
“There is a perception though, that private school alumni tend to stick together in university”Moreover, arguments that full scholarships are granted to a token percentage of less well off students are less than compelling. It seems unreasonable to predict that students with limited interaction with people from different backgrounds will be anything other than ill-equipped when they later come to meet such individuals.In terms of socialising activities like sports, competitions, drama, debating – all the enterprises which afford the opportunity to make new friends – such pursuits are as available to public school pupils as they are to anyone else.It’s just that an element of thriftiness is sometimes helpful! Indeed, one social advantage to be gleaned is the ability to improvise and ‘make do’. In my alma mater, without extensive resources we still had strong traditions of competing in choral festivals and debating competitions.Sports too, were a valued social outlet. Our outdoor basketball court was in such poor condition that it was officially deemed unsafe and chained shut, lest a hapless first year trip on the broken tarmac and die, I imagine.But we still had teams. We continued to compete. We trained together in our too-small sports hall. While we fundraised for the court’s repair, we compromised with other teams in the league, agreeing that we would play our matches in their facilities.This lesson about making the most of an opportunity and taking initiative is an important one. In terms of social benefits, “A rich person is not one who has the most but is one who needs the least”.With regard to the ‘final product’, how do these students fare on the social scene? Oftentimes, schools allow for the fact that ‘one size’ does not fit all. Students opt for different paths, some leading to university, others to apprenticeships, others directly into the workforce.Practically, this means that people tend to go their own separate ways after school. Coming into UCD alone gives you the impetus to branch out and make new friends, inevitably a fruitful endeavour! There is a perception though, that private school alumni tend to stick together in university. One might suggest that they are not best served by this choice.In practice, I have seldom appreciated any concrete difference between the girls with whom I sat through endless screenings of Sex has a Price Tag and those of fee-paying schools, but these usually were nothing more than a difference in social mannerisms perhaps.Social nuances aside, we are not two overly distinguishable groups. Where a school is united and its students experience how to relate different people; where a community invests its time and support in a school – it will thrive. As will its pupils, socially. Fee-paying or not.