Northern Ireland

Minister seeks millions of pounds for elite fee-paying schools

Ben Madigan in north Belfast is one of 12 prep schools across the north. Picture by Mal McCann
Ben Madigan in north Belfast is one of 12 prep schools across the north. Picture by Mal McCann

MILLIONS of pounds is being sought for fee-paying `prep' schools affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

The blanket closure, which is now in its seventh week, is impacting the level of income that private institutions can collect, the Department of Education said.

There are a dozen grammar school preparatory departments that charge up to £5,000 a year per pupil.

This means they receive less public funding than other primary schools.

With in-school classes replaced by online or remote learning, some parents have indicated they cannot or will not pay.

Some are understood to have cancelled direct debits without warning.

This is creating a challenging cash flow problem, as schools must continue to pay staff and are unable to access the government's furlough scheme.

It has now emerged that the Department of Finance has been asked for £2.3 million by the Department of Education.

The awarding of public money to semi-private schools has long been considered a thorny issue.

Former Education Minister Caitriona Ruane threatened to withdraw public money completely before later deciding to continue funding at a reduced level.

An independent review had earlier concluded that subsidising fee-charging schools was an "inequitable use of public funds".

Since then, five have shut down, including Bloomfield Collegiate, Dalriada, Down High, Cygnet House at Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor and Connor House, which was attached to minister Peter Weir's former school Bangor Grammar.

The latest intervention by Mr Weir has raised eyebrows with observers asking why schools that can charge, and have already collected fees, need to be bailed out.

Schools offer parents different ways to pay - including one-off, bi-annual or monthly payments.

It was expected these would still be made even though buildings are closed to most children. All schools remain open, while not physically, in terms of teachers organising learning and pupils taking lessons from home.

An interactive map updated daily by the Education Authority shows that almost all preps, or the grammar school to which they are linked, have been open to children of key workers.

It has been suggested that some parents are now unable to pay fees due to being out of work suddenly or furloughed.

The Irish News has been told that others are simply refusing to pay for a `reduced' service.

Explaining the £2.3m bid, the department said preps were dependent on tuition fee income paid by parents "to fund their ongoing activities and to remain viable and sustainable".

"Covid-19 has resulted in school closures impacting the level of income received by these schools, and with staff and other fixed costs still being incurred, losses on this scale could impact the financial stability of preparatory schools," a spokeswoman said.

"The pressure was based on an assumption that approximately 30 per cent of tuition fees could be lost, broadly equivalent to 12 weeks.

"The pressure identified was based on an assessment of the anticipated lost income for these schools as a result of Covid-19. Due to the fluidity of the current situation the department continues to assess the financial impact on grant-aided schools."

Strathearn School in east Belfast allows parents to pay fees in full immediately, over a 10-month period or on a bi-annual basis.

It said it was yet to make a decision on fees and was consulting with parents on the matter.

"Strathearn School is currently considering all the options regarding fees at our preparatory department, Penrhyn, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to evolve," a spokesman said.

"We are mindful of the unusual circumstances that families may find themselves in during these unprecedented times and the matter remains under constant review, in close consultation with the parents. Our priority at all times remains the wellbeing and education of our pupils, who are continuing their studies each day from home via teacher-led virtual learning."