Prep me up.....

Education is becoming much more important to me now, as i have two girls growing up far too quickly for my liking i might add.  The eldest will soon be ready to enter that world of pain... I mean education, as she reaches the heady heights of 4 this year.  (I think the lack of sleep for the past three years has blanked out most of her growing up period).

The first stage of her inevitable education will be Primary School.  I remember my primary school, Kinnego Primary school in Co. Armagh, and do think back on the good memories (I know there will have been bad ones too but this is my flash back).  I was able to walk to school, or cycle, or get a lift down in the winter.  My parents were supportive and wanted me to do my best. I did the 11+, and just about passed.  I did not go to a prep school - my parents could not afford it.

So why should I wish to defend the funding system for Prep Schools when the Northern Ireland Education Minister said that this part of the UK will no longer fund Preparatory schools? On a principle of excellence and opportunity to attain that excellence.

I am a tax payer and my taxes are subsidising children going to a school that many would think they cannot afford.  Is it not just for the privileged classes?  I am by no means one of the privileged class.  Our family constantly look at our budget every month to ensure we can pay all the bills.  One of those major outgoings is the mortgage, the other is nursery places for our two girls.

Now, lets say I find a Prep school I would like my girls to go to and they charge £3,000 per year. 

Oh, that's got to hurt.  Yes it will, but I spend £1,200 a month for nursery places.  Not because I want to but because I have too. Any state sub for me? Er no. Apart from childcare vouchers which is part of a salary sacrifice scheme there is nothing. Yes, we get child credit but lets be serious, with both our 'on paper' salaries' its not much. 

So compare £6000 a year for two girls with what we are already paying, £14,400 a year.  A good education and cheaper at the price. Hmmm, getting more attractive.  So how does this impact on the removal of funding from Prep schools as it would still be cheaper than nursery?  The problem is that this issue is little more than an ideologically Marxist objective from an Education Minister who sends her own children to a British grammar school, while trying to reduce the quality educational output from Northern Ireland Schools.  

That's right, she has used her choice to send her children, who live in County Louth, to a grammar school in Northern Ireland.  Absolutely fine, Comrade Ruane, even though you may have bent the rules a bit to do so.  

Financially, removal of funding for Prep schools of about £800 per child, will increase the Education budget pressure to around £2000 per child.  Hmmm, do I get a rebate for the nursery places for my kids then? Thought not.  This means that there will be less money in the overall educational pot for the things that are funded now (about £5 million less), because the children going to Prep Schools will become part of the fully funded system.  As Bob Balls points out in his post 

If Ruane gets her way and destroys preps, more pupils will go to primaries. Which involves moving lots of children from the £808 funding bracket to the £2,911 bracket. If just a quarter of the prep population switches to primaries then the taxpayer would have to fork out an additional c.£5 million. This at a time when expenditure must be cut by £370 million and the onus is on cuts.

Like Catriona Ruane, I want the best for my kids.  I want them to have equality of opportunity, not an opportunity to be equal with everyone else.  They are not equal to everyone else, they will be more intelligent than some, and less so than others.  That is life.  I will encourage them and provide them with as much support as I can.  But that is my choice.  

Yes there are underachievers in our society, and we have to address that.  But by dragging down excellence to the lowest common denominator will simply not work.  If parents do not care about the educational attainment of their children, why cripple those parents who actually do care.  The real issue is how do we work to encourage children and adults in our society to achieve?  If we are all equal, creativity will be stifled, leadership will not be nurtured, entrepreneurial endeavour will falter, there will be no 'best'.  

Just as an example, my parents encouraged and supported me and my brother to work at our education.  We both went to Kinnego Primary School, we both went to the Royal School Armagh.  I went to University, my younger brother went to Upper Bann College for Further and Higher Education.  I have a degree, my brother has an HND.  I work in an office, my brother works in an engineering firm.  My brother earns more than me, and I could not weld for toffee.  I love reading books and have enjoyed my academic journey, while my brother enjoys making things.  The issue is not who did better, but what each persons' life skills are and how to encourage them to use them the the best of their abilities.  But you can not make them.  They have to take those opportunities for themselves.

With regard to the debate on Preparatory schools, I believe they are another opportunity for people and help to add to the diversity of an education mix that parents can choose from.  Those from middle economic backgrounds are essentially going have that choice removed through the removal of funding.  It will become a truly elitist education choice available to only the richest.  Maybe Catriona wants to move towards that system? I am not sure, but I do know it will reduce opportunity in the longer term.

In fairness though, it is not all black and white.  There was a debate on the removal of Preparatory school funding in the Assembly this week where the usual grand standing and political baiting were on full display.  However, the Sinn Fein amendment to the substantive motion, was put forward quite ably by John O'Dowd, who highlighted a report produced by the DUP controlled Department of Finance and Personnel that states as a recommendation

7.3 BCS has concluded that funding provision that can only be accessed by children whose parents can pay the requisite fee is not consistent with the principle of equity in the distribution of resources. We have therefore recommended that DE consider the withdrawal of such funding. 
7.4 The withdrawal of DE funding to preparatory departments is likely to have marginal impact on the education budget. We have concluded that the equity issue far outweighs the economic issue in relation to the overall decision to be made.

Catriona also referred to this, much to the annoyance of the DUP, and particularly Jonathan Bell MLA (Strangford) who was ordered from the Chamber for accusing the Minister for misleading the house.  Unfortunately the grand standing and abstinence from both sides of the debate has left much of the populace open mouthed.  It has also left little wriggle room for people to compromise and still save face.  (I see the full irony of my post in this context, especially how I started off)

I want an education system that will give my girls the opportunities they need to do as well as they can.

So........................., I have a cunning plan.  

If the Education Minister is determined to plough ahead then why not fully fund Preparatory school places, and allow them to keep their ethos and guarantee their existence for a period of time (say 10 years).  Currently this would affect 2,426 children, and as the Business Consultancy Service says  

equity issue far outweighs the economic issue in relation to the overall decision to be made

This would save the Prep school places, widen equality of opportunity, expand parental choice, not discriminate against anyone and might reverse Catriona's unpopularity.

Job done!


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