Ruling no more than a stay of execution for institutions restricting enrolment
THE HIGH Court ruling in the Clonmel case will be welcomed by many schools.
Essentially, it maintains the status quo. Schools are free to set their own admissions policies – provided they are consistent with equality legislation and the Education Act.
It is also the case, however, that those schools guilty of restricting enrolment have secured no more than a stay of execution.
Irrespective of what happened in the courts yesterday , Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has made clear his determination to press ahead with new rules for school admissions.
The Department of Education is in the process of drawing up a new regulatory framework on “how best to allocate school places to prospective students”.
Essentially, Quinn has put schools on notice that restrictive school admissions policies will not be tolerated.
He is particularly exercised about admissions policies which favour the siblings of current pupils.
In practice, this means that a whole swathe of students – Travellers, most foreign nationals and non-Catholics among them – can be excluded from schools.
Few deny that some schools employ restrictive policies to cherry-pick some students and to exclude others.
In 2006, a Department of Education audit found some schools were using all kinds of restrictive admissions policies to exclude certain categories of students, including Travellers, those with special needs, the children of immigrants and even low academic achievers.
The audit found some schools were using elaborate pre-enrolment procedures such as waiting lists and siblings policies to exclude some students.
At the time, Mary Hanafin, as minister for education, accused some schools of using “subtle practices” to exclude certain students.
To date, Quinn has adopted a softly, softly approach to the issue. Last June, he published a discussion document on the issue and invited submissions from interested parties. These are now being examined in the department.
Quinn has stressed how the discussion document was “not meant to be prescriptive, nor have any decisions been made as to what elements will be contained in any final regulations or legislation”.
“It is meant to lead and provoke debate on enrolment policies,” he added.
Broadly, the discussion document signals that schools should no longer be able to use “siblings policies”, waiting lists or academic reports from prospective entrants to discriminate against students.
Department of Education officials are examining a range of submissions received from school management bodies, teacher unions and others in response to the discussion document. Proposals for a new regulatory framework will be made to Quinn shortly.
The key issue is whether the Minister will be content with a new voluntary code of practice, or will move to impose tough new sanctions on schools that discriminate and exclude.