My recent column on elite Wesley College and other well-off institutions receiving large grants under the government’s Sports Capital Programme drew attention to the seeming anomaly of already wealthy bodies (including golf clubs charging high fees) enjoying state largesse.
Minister Shane Ross has vigorously defended his role in the affair, claiming that he signed off on an initial rejection of Wesley’s application before signing off on its successful appeal. In each case, he says, he accepted the judgement of his officials and did not interfere in any way.
But the Sunday Business Post has just turned up an interesting fact: there has never before been an appeals process for this grant scheme. And the reason there was one this time seems to be because Wesley College went ballistic on being denied the €150,000 it asked for to refurbish a hockey pitch.
The school, along with the Methodist Church in Ireland (Wesley’s parent body) and the YMCA (which wanted to use the pitch too), threatened Ross’ department with legal action if it did not get what it wanted: “If we are not successful in this review procedure, you will appreciate that we must reserve our rights to seek redress elsewhere”, including through the courts.
The minister responded to this and other complaints by instituting the appeal facility, through which it was determined that Wesley was not ineligible for the programme by virtue of its being a private school (as had originally been argued). And the appeal was successful despite Wesley’s application having been awarded low marks for its not being located in an area of socio-economic disadvantage.
In future, the Post goes on to report, revisions to the scheme will mean that schools and golf clubs that charge large fees should have less chance of being successful in their applications – disadvantage will count for more. Which, in fairness, would be a welcome change – if it is actually implemented
In the meantime, two aspects of this story that I had not previously highlighted are Wesley’s sense of entitlement, and a lack of seriousness with how some politicians discuss these issues.
That a rich institution like Wesley College would seek state support is understandable – that it would react with righteous indignation to its not getting it is more eyebrow-raising. But then entitlement culture runs deep in the DNA of, in particular, certain educational institutions in Ireland.
I previously noted the reaction of the Blackrock College past-pupils’ association to modest attempts to reduce family favouritism in school-admissions policy: “Anything that potentially threatens the tradition where brothers and sons of past students can follow in the footsteps of their brothers and fathers through Blackrock College is a threat to that which many of us hold so dear.” And no doubt these so-called Rock Men do indeed hold their unearned privilege dear.
They certainly treat the issues more seriously than do some public representatives. Minister Ross’ defence of his handling of the Sports Capital Programme in front of a Dáil committee included his berating opposition critics for having lobbied his department in support of grant applications in their own constituencies.
At which point, the committee chairman, Kevin O’Keeffe of Fianna Fáil, admitted he had helped write an application himself. Ross responded by claiming that O’Keeffe had written 60 applications, which prompted “bouts of laughter”, according to the Irish Times report.
Maybe you had to be there but I am not quite sure why exactly all this was supposed to be funny.
Meanwhile, a new report finds that parents and local communities are contributing €46 million a year to the running of Ireland’s primary schools, roughly half of all day-to-day costs. If you are the parents of children at an elite feeder school to the likes of Blackrock or Wesley, then those bills are probably affordable, but they are a bigger burden for the parents of pupils at most ordinary schools. Even before the state compounds the inequalities by subsidising the already well-off.
But no doubt our politicians will at least be able to get a good laugh out of that too when next they get around to discussing it.