October 24, 2005

Protestant schools are bursting at the seams

Posted in People · 7 comments ·
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Our local Protestant national school has a demand problem. It is too popular. The same issue is facing many Protestant national schools in Dublin and, most likely, all over the country. Not only has the last few years seen an increase in the Protestant population, but there are many Catholic parents enrolling their children in Protestant schools.

Let’s explode this phenomenon and do a little exercise in the economics of a Protestant education.

According to the latest census figures, the Protestant population in the Republic is rising for the first time since the 19th century.

The rise is being caused by a mixture of conversion, immigration, re-migration of locals who left in the 1980s, and the fact that more children of mixed marriages are being brought up as Protestants. Being a southern Protestant has never been more popular.

In the past, the local Protestant national school found it difficult to fill classes. Today, the issue is where to put everybody. In the main, it can be planned for, but the most interesting sociological issue is the increase in Catholic parents registering their children in Protestant schools.

One reason is supply-driven. According to recent reports, there has been a huge increase in the number of students going to private schools. Parents are eschewing the traditional non-fee-paying schools that once formed the backbone of Dublin’s secondary education system.

This appears both bizarre and counterintuitive, but it has been going on for some time. For example, the Christian Brothers School in Dun Laoghaire closed down, and there is now just one school in the principal town of Ireland’s sixth-largest constituency.

The phenomenon is not limited to south Dublin. Last year, another long-standing non-fee-paying institution, Belcamp College, was sold off. Belcamp finally threw in the towel after struggling for years to maintain student numbers.

Figures for O’Connell’s School and �Joey’s’ in Fairview tell the same story.

The Department of Education has revealed that hundreds of places are unfilled in free education schools in the Dublin area. There are 13,000 unfilled places in north Dublin schools alone.

Why is this happening? What are the long-term implications of the hollowing-out of Dublin’s education system? The easiest answer is that the capital has become amazingly snobby over the past few years.

Schools that were good enough for Dad are no longer good enough for junior. But why now?

Perhaps because the new Irish Dream, like the American Dream, is defined as one where the winner takes all. Trading up and having it all are the underlying characteristics.

An increasing gap between the very rich and the poor is the outcome. Middle-class parents are aware that the difference between material success and failure is growing.

Every decision they take on behalf of their children is considerably more loaded than it used to be.

Nowhere is this more evident than in schooling, because the demand for education is rising exponentially. But what of supply? Well, the supply of traditionally expensive schools can’t increase, so the fees rise instead.

This is having an amplified impact on the Protestant schools in particular. As a result of the traditional position of Protestants in the middle class, Protestant schools are over-represented among the ranks of middle-class schools in Dublin.

Because of the feeder school system from primary to secondary schools, Catholic parents must send their children to private Protestant primary schools to guarantee their place in the �right’ secondary school. This has the effect of pushing the fees in those primary schools higher.

As a reaction to the increase in price, �ethnic’ Protestants – who typically would have gone to these schools, but might today have more modest salaries than their Catholic neighbours – are opting to send their children to free Church of Ireland schools instead.

Thus far, economics can explain the trend of non-Protestants sending their children to Protestant schools. But there is something else happening that goes beyond the rational idea of parents wanting to get the �best’ for their children.

It has less to do with economics than anthropology, and is infinitely funnier. In the age of abundance that Ireland is experiencing, money alone no longer marks people out. More elusive factors, such as taste, appreciation and uniqueness, come into play.

Wealthy people are trying to find ways to distinguish themselves from their counterparts. The wealthy want to be posh, rather than merely rich. No matter how you look at it, southern Protestants were always posh. They are the ecumenical equivalent of bouillabaisse. As a consequence, rich Catholic parents are trying to mark out the distinctiveness of their children by not sending them to the local Catholic school, but to the more rarefied Protestant school.

However, this takes a bit of work. The wealthy might, in the extreme, have to swap sides or, at the very least, nod in that general direction. People who haven’t been to Mass for years suddenly turn up in Protestant churches.

They are the ones who mime the hymns and use the word �Vespers’ inappropriately. They also commandeer a stall at the summer fete or take the Brownies enthusiastically up the Sugarloaf. With the zeal of converts, they out-Protestant the Protestants.

This creates a problem for the rector. He has to decide who is sufficiently Protestant and who is not, and who gets into the national school. Does he reject the children of the newly observant wannabe Protestants in favour of those of the totally atheist �ethnic’ Protestants?

Does he dare to second-guess motives and distinguish between the anthropologically-driven snobs and the economically-savvy new realists? He needs the wisdom of Solomon.

Then again, Protestants were always partial to the Old Testament.


  1. john bennett

    It is a sad state of affairs that this is occuring. It is
    probably true that parents can get their children a better
    leaving certificate by sending their children to private
    schools. One of the biggest criticisms of the leaving cert
    is that it relies alot on wrote learning which makes it
    easier for fee paying schools and grind schools to earn
    their pupils the extra points. Unfortunately when these hot
    housed students get to third level the pitch is levelled.
    Parents can’t buy the best lecturers or teachers. From my
    time at third level I distinctly remember students just
    scraping into courses with average leaving certs turning
    out with first class degrees and students with very good
    leaving certs from fee paying schools unable to hack the
    third level system of learning. In fact it can be argued
    that if you have got to third level from an average
    secondary school you are probably better able to learn
    independently where you would have to cope with bad
    teaching methods which are endemic in the third level
    system. Unfortunately the irish media’s interest in
    education stops at the leaving cert. You never see any
    analysis of who gets the top degrees at third level, where
    they come from, and what schools they attended

  2. will

    David,

    A basic principle of economics is that anything that is
    fixed in supply can increase price without a drop in demand
    if anything an increase.This principle as you say can be
    applied to the supply of private secondry schools in
    Ireland(religion aside) and an ever increasing demand by
    the upper/middle class parent for this service.

    But isn’t it evident there is an exploitation by the
    private sector over the public on private schooling fees?

  3. Ian

    The economic dimension of gaining places in National Schools
    cannot be measured in cash terms; it is not possible to buy
    a place in a National School. Instead, it is a question of
    opportunity cost, what am I prepared to forego to get my
    children in amongst the Protestants? No easy option of
    Saturday evening Mass – it’s Sunday morning, and a round of
    golf or a ‘lie in’ foregone. No hiding amongst the hordes,
    instead being clearly identified among and being expected to
    do one’s bit.

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

  4. Paul Rux, Ph.D.

    David, as an educator (I did my M.A. thesis at the
    University of Toronto on Thomas D’Arcy McGee and his
    attempt to transplant the educational ideas of Young
    Ireland to Canada in the 19th century), I find your
    comments on schools in Ireland fascinating. Here, in
    America, the rush to get children into non-public schools
    comes from fear, fear of children literally getting shot
    to death in school. Yesterday, a high school in Madison,
    Wisconsin, our state capital, had its 7th weapons incident
    in 5 days. We are talking about mutants carrying loaded
    9mm pistols into schools. The debate here is not about
    posh but about metal detectors to forestall another school
    massacre like the infamous one at Columbine in Colorado.
    America is the first country in the history of the world
    to live in fear literally of its children. I hope Ireland
    never Americanizes. The worst part is because of psycho-
    babble, the government stands paralyzed for fear of
    offending human rights, animal rights, gay rights,
    environmental rights, mutant rights, and gang-banger
    rights. Part of my livelihood involves starting private
    schools. Parents here are desperate from fear to get out
    of our state-supported (public) schools. When I read
    about the schools in Dublin in your excellent essays, I
    cannot help thinking, well, there you go, the Revolt of
    the Masses is underway in Ireland, too, and everybody is
    too polite to point out that social order is taking
    place. As Toynbee observed, in his A Study of History,
    the Romans imported their barbarians. We are, at least in
    this country, intent on growing our own mutants.

  5. joeoc

    This reminds me of hitching. Years ago, travelling to
    college in Galway, I hitched. There were many times I felt
    miserable, but I always got a lift. When I got my first car
    I geve people a lift regularly. Since coming back from the
    USA, I notice that hardly anyone hitches. perhaps because
    hardly anyone gives a lift to those who do. Is it because
    anyone who does hitch must be nuts? It might also be true
    that anyone who does give people a lift must also be daft.
    What caused this anyway?

    You are probably wondering how this applies to schools.
    Well, if parents take their kids to private schools (to get
    them a better education and to protect them) those that
    remain will tend to be kids of parents who don’t place the
    same value on education or can’t afford to. We will be left
    with dysfunctional schools and wonder why the school
    doesn’t work, leading to additional defectors.

    I believe that the biggest determinent in whether a child
    succeeds in school is the level of involvement by the
    parents in their childs education. The school itself and
    it’s leadership is important. But if good parents take
    their children and their own energy away, the school
    itself, the locality and society in general will be poorer
    as a result.

    //Joe

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