Legislation to create more fair and transparent school enrolment process

New rules will stop State funded schools from using ‘low-level discrimination’, particularly against students with special needs

 Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn: will gain significant new powers to ensure fairness and balance in enrolment. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn: will gain significant new powers to ensure fairness and balance in enrolment. Photograph: Eric Luke

Mon, Sep 2, 2013, 06:00

The Minister for Education will gain significant new powers to ensure fairness and balance in the enrolment policies of our schools, due to draft legislation published by the Government this morning.

No school in receipt of State funding will be allowed to opt out of the new process: if lack of co-operation persists, an independent person can be appointed, on the approval of a court, to operate its enrolment process.

Students will not be left behind if nearby schools are full or if the child has special educational needs. The National Council for Special Education may designate a place in a particular school to ensure their participation. If a child can’t get a place at a nearby school, the National Educational Welfare Board will also have powers to insist a school provides a place.

‘Soft barriers’
Schools sometimes used “soft barriers” to exclude some children, particularly those with a learning disability, the department said.

“It is below the radar, low-level discrimination, ” one source added. The new legislation should now make the process as transparent as possible.

One of the biggest changes is that waiting lists will end. While some schools may be allowed to clear existing waiting lists, in the main these “first come first served” lists will go and different criteria will be applied in enrolment. These will be chosen by the school itself but must be published, making discrimination difficult.

Gone also is the invidious practice of charging for inclusion on the list in the first place. Parents with concerns about getting a place in a neighbouring school might sign up for several schools, paying the charges to each and making a final decision when the child reached school-going age.

Some schools adopted other ways of checking out the ‘suitability’ of prospective students and parents. One was to hold “open days”, making attendance compulsory as a condition of signing up. Compulsory interviews for the child and parents were also used. All of these would be banned under the new legislation.

An ESRI study some years ago showed that 80 per cent of schools in receipt of State funding took in every child presented for admission, the departmental source notes. But that meant 20 per cent claimed they were full up and had to send students away.

These were not all fee-paying schools by any means. Smaller towns might have, say, two secondary schools, with one considered the “good school” and more desirable than the other. This could put admissions pressure on the “good school”, with places unfilled in the other.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes is to the appeals procedures if parents decide to challenge a school’s rejection of a child. Cases taken in this regard often triggered multiple appeals, creating a “significant administrative burden” for schools. The new legislation removes the burden of appealing school decisions from parents.