October 24, 2005
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 ï¿½Joey’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 ï¿½right’ secondary school. This has the effect of pushing the fees in those primary schools higher.
As a reaction to the increase in price, ï¿½ethnic’ 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 ï¿½best’ 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 ï¿½Vespers’ 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 ï¿½ethnic’ 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.