Lessons to be learned from case in Clonmel

 

LEFTFIELD:THE HIGH COURT ruling in the Clonmel High School case has again brought into focus the issue of school enrolment policies. A claim of discrimination was made due to a refusal by the board of management of an application for enrolment in 2010.

The parents claimed their son was discriminated against under the parental rule in the school’s enrolment policy (it favours the sons of former pupils), because his father, a member of the Travelling community, was unlikely to have attended the school because at that time Travellers did not typically attend secondary education.

In June last, the Minister for Education and Skills, Mr Ruairí Quinn, issued a discussion paper on enrolment policies in schools. In a foreword, he said the policy “presents the challenge for us of striking the right balance between preserving aspects of enrolment policies and processes that are grounded in tradition with the need to ensure fairness in what we do”. A consultation process on the paper closed in October and publication of the outcome is awaited.

All schools are legally obliged to have an enrolment policy. It is only in cases of oversubscription – which arises in 20 per cent of schools – that criteria for selecting pupils must be applied. It is regrettable that in such cases, some applicants will, of necessity, be disappointed.

The Clonmel case highlights the importance of selecting on the basis of transparent enrolment policies, which are compliant with legislation and the spirit of the school. The ruling recognises the difficult decisions that schools must take.

The court ruling supports the enrolment policy in Clonmel High School and recognises that it was administered in a fair manner. In his judgment, Mr Justice McCarthy refers to the fact that the ethos of the school extends beyond the provision of education services, but also includes “the avoidance of elitism, the advancement of inclusivity, the maintenance of traditional connections with certain feeder schools and the provision of facilities for pupils with special educational needs” as well as “the establishment and maintenance of links between the school and the community”.

The picture painted by the judge is replicated across the network of the 380 voluntary secondary schools.

In 2008 the Department of Education and Skills announced the outcome of an audit of enrolment policies in schools across the country. The key finding was that there was “no evidence of any system wide enrolment practices that give rise to concern”. This clearly indicates that assertions made such as “some schools are using elaborate pre-enrolment procedures” and “employ restrictive practices to cherry-pick some students and to exclude others” are not factual.

Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 facilitates a parent(s) whose application for their child’s enrolment has been refused to appeal the refusal to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. Where such an appeal is submitted, the parent(s) is facilitated in having the case examined by a three-person independent appeals committee including a DES inspector. The key point here is that such an appeal facility exists and that the evidence from the outcomes indicates that the appeal is upheld by the appeals committee for approximately one-third of the roughly 100 applications annually at post-primary level.

As we await the response from the consultation process on the Minister’s discussion paper it is important to emphasise that the clear evidence in the system is that schools have enrolment policies that are clear and transparent and that every effort is made by schools to be inclusive and welcoming. However, where the number of applications exceed the number of places available, some people must of necessity be disappointed. In such situations a refusal to enrol must always be based on a school’s published enrolment policy.


Ferdia Kelly is general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body. It manages 470 voluntary secondary schools