Department of Education fails to enforce its own rules on school funding leaving taxpayer to pick up €11.5 million bill

* A guest post by Jill Nesbitt on how one primary school charges thousands in “voluntary parent contributions” while drawing down state funding.

A former private primary school in Dublin 4 sought recognition as a national school and undertook to comply with all Department of Education requirements for schools in the free education system, one of which was to abolish school fees.

However, despite being granted provisional recognition and State funding in September 1999 the John Scottus National School on Northumberland Road continued to seek large voluntary contributions from parents.

The school is still receiving state funding and still has only provisional recognition, some 19 years later.  Since October 2003, the school has received over €11.5 million in taxpayer funding, not including the salaries of special needs assistants.  This year, it’s asking parents for €3,600 p.m. in an “annual contribution” (  though it does offer an Option B of paying nothing.

One of the conditions of recognition is that “no fee of any kind in respect of the provision of primary education may be levied by a national school.” Internal memos released under Freedom of Information show that the Department was assured that the school had agreed to conform to all requirements when it was granted provisional recognition in September 1999.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science queried the Department over this in 2005.  The then Secretary General Brigid McManus said that the Department had written to the school seeking clarification as to the “voluntary” nature of the contributions and said that the matter was still under consideration in the context of the school’s application for permanent recognition.

That same year the Department pointed out that the amount of contribution sought of parents was equivalent to what they used to seek in fees.  In a letter to the school Mr Tony Dalton said that the then level of contribution being sought “far exceeds” what could be construed as reasonable costs for school books, lunches etc.

“Secondly, prior to receiving recognition as a national school, it appears that the school was charging fees of IRP 460 per term.  Allowing for annual inflation since then, and the conversion to the euro, this figure actually now equates to the ‘voluntary contribution’ currently being requested.  It would appear, therefore, that the funding arrangements at the school have not changed despite the school having received national school status and benefiting from the substantial funding that goes along with this,” he said.

Mr Dalton said that the Department required “written assurances” that the practice of asking for this level of voluntary contribution would “cease immediately”.  “Future consideration of the school’s application for permanent recognition and indeed the continuing provisional recognition of the school as a national school is dependent on this recognition being received.”

The school responded by threatening legal action.  Mr David Horan, the then chairperson of the John Scottus Educational Trust which runs both the national school and the private John Scottus secondary school says that “no legal advice was sought as we received no response or acknowledgment of our letter.”

With provisional recognition, the John Scottus National School receives teaching salaries, capitation, 75% of rent and various other grants in common with all national schools.  With permanent recognition it would also be eligible for capital grants, school transport and a rent refund of 95%.

The school says that the parental contribution pays for “more teachers and thus smaller class sizes” as well as a longer school day, hot vegetarian lunch and snacks, book supply and swimming.  For 2016-17 the school had 217 pupils with an average of 15.5 pupils per class compared with averages of 25 to 30 in similar sized national schools.

Mr Horan is now the head of the School of Philosophy and Economic Science which founded the John Scottus schools in 1986.  The Irish organisation is part of a worldwide movement, the London based School of Economic Science developed by Leonardo da Vinci MacLaren, the grandson of Irish Catholics.  It offers courses around Ireland in “practical philosophy” which is based on Advaita Vedanta. Children in the John Scottus school have regular philosophy and Sanskrit classes.  The Dublin schools are among fifteen worldwide.

The John Scottus opened another private primary school at Old Conna, Shankill, Co Dublin (former 14 acre Aravon School) in September 2017 where the fees are €4,800 p.a. These documents are either released under FoI or come from parents of children at the school.

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