Kilkenny’s College’s decision to enter the public free education system from this September has taken many people by surprise.
In an interview last Thursday, Kilkenny College headmaster Ian Coombes explained the reasoning behind the decision, and how it will affect the school, its staff, students, and what consequences it may have for Kilkenny. Some elements have been abridged for clarity.
Why was this decision made?
Up until 2008, we were classified as a school in the free scheme. Even though, as one of the rural Protestant schools since the late 1960s we were allowed to charge fees and for the boarding element as well. This was very much to try to accomodate a very scattered community from many counties. Then in 2008, Minister O’ Keefe basically lumped our schools in with other fee-charging schools, and all of the free school system supports were taken away. This drastically reduced our income, our numbers of teachers allocated by the state.
When did the process begin?
The thought process goes back to initially challenging the Department’s decision with a campaign with all the other schools invoved in 2009. And then just over three years ago, in 2010, we set up a strategy committee. That committee involved governors and board members, representatives of staff and of parents. It did a huge amount of work on the service we are trying to provide, how to improve it, and how we could re-engage the public system.
What was the pupil/teacher ratio?
The ratio to 2008 was 18:1. In September of the coming year, for a fee charging school, that would go to 23:1. So there is obviously quite a big differential. Now for every [public] school, it’s gone to 19:1 in the meantime. SO one of the advantages for us in making the change would be returning to that 19:1 ratio.
So this has potentially been on the table for three years?
It has. We have been working on how to go about it for a while.
Have the College’s fees risen in recent years?
No. We managed to freeze the fees, but obviously that meant we have had to be very tight with our financing internally. And there is a limit to how much of that you can do.
What was Minister Ruairi Quinn’s role?
The minister was very helpful to work with, our first meeting with him was last June. He made it very clear in that meeting that he supported diversity in education, and he was very aware of the role we play in the community, both locally and regionally. There have been seven very detailed meetings with officials who report back to the minister.
Will all the current subjects in the curriculum be maintained?
We would – that’s our plan... We are looking at being able to achieve this through some increase in our numbers, although we are not far off our maximum number of pupils, and also the gradual retirement of teachers and so on.
How will works programmes such as building be affected?
Our next phase is really looking at IT facilities. We have a programme to improve our wifi coming on stream this year. And we have a college fundraising committee, the Foundation, and they are working very actively still. There are two big projects: One is to replace our old hockey pitch, and the other is to start work on the drama, arts and music building. So that’s very much part of our programme for the next two or three years.
Will this change the school’s offering?
Our aim is that a pupil coming in, a new first year starting in September 2013, shouldn’t notice any difference to the service that let’s say an older brother had last year.
What about admissions policy?
The patronage, the management structure and so on remains the same. It remains in the hands of the governors to decide the policy within. There is no impact on that. It’s one of the things that the minister was very clear on immediately. The college can maintain its traditions, its ethos, its enrolment policy and its patronage won’t be affected.
Do you feel your hand has been forced by former Government policy?
The strategy group found that fewer and fewer children from Church of Ireland or general Protestant background, from our feeder primary schools, were actually coming to Kilkenny College. We looked at the factors in that, and the biggest by far was cost. So we knew that from talking to parents, and surveying the primary schools. Our mission is as a diocesan school, and we were finding it very difficult to fulfil that in the structure as it was.
Is this a ‘game-changer’ in terms of a school on this side of the city?
I doubt it very much. Our capacity to take very large numbers or change that is limited. It might take off some pressure, but won’t alleviate all of it by any means.