More than one in five private schools in the Republic of Ireland is considering axeing fees and becoming completely state-funded because of government cuts and problems with parents increasingly unable to pay, it has emerged.
Twelve of the country's 55 fee-charging secondary schools are reported to be in talks with the government about changing their status after a drop in enrolments.
Private secondary schools in Ireland already receive government funding to cover the cost of teachers' salaries, which currently totals around ?100 million (pound;86 million) a year, but they are under pressure to reduce staffing levels.
From September, the country's Department of Education and Skills will provide a teacher for every 23 students in a fee-charging school, compared with one teacher for every 19 students at schools in the state sector. About 7 per cent of students in Ireland are privately educated.
The move by schools to explore dropping fees echoes the situation in the UK, where the recession has led to a growing trend for private schools to reopen as state-funded, independent free schools and academies.
Two fee-charging secondaries in Ireland have already made the switch, including historic Protestant school Kilkenny College, the alma mater of writer Jonathan Swift, which was founded in 1538.
Its principal, Ian Coombes, said that the decision, which was made in March, has saved the struggling school from laying off any of its teachers. He told the BBC that the recession is hitting parents hard and that many Protestants are on low incomes and working in rural economies.
Growing interest in joining the state sector has prompted heated political debate about the future relationship between state and private schools. Some politicians have claimed that it would be fairer to remove the schools' subsidies entirely.
A recent Irish government report highlighted the fact that private schools have ?81.2 million per year more than state schools to spend on teachers, facilities and extracurricular activities. But the report also calculated that if all the country's private schools were admitted to the state sector, it would cost the taxpayer ?23.5 million in additional funding.
Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents non-state schools in Ireland, who has opposed cuts to private school subsidies, told TES: "At a time when the education budget is being cut, it seems daft to be pursuing a policy like this. If you are trying to find savings then surely it's not time for the government to spend more money to bring these schools into the free education sector.
"Politicians are saying it's about equality and fairness, but on a practical level it will cost more."
Parents often choose fee-charging schools because they want their child to be taught under a particular religious ethos, or wish them to board. Annual fees are low, ranging from ?2,550 to ?10,065, according to the government's report.
There is also a religious dimension to the debate, as the majority of Protestant secondary schools in the country are fee- charging, so would be disproportionately affected by the ongoing cuts to teacher-student ratios.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills confirmed that "a number of schools" of Catholic and Protestant denominations have contacted the government about becoming fully state-funded. "Any approach to the department by fee-charging schools to explore entering the free scheme will be considered on an individual basis," she said.