Overhauling school admission
A commitment to introduce a fair and transparent admission system for primary and secondary schools represents a small advance. The draft legislation published by Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn is likely to be regarded in some quarters as an attack on the autonomy of fee-paying schools. But it will have wider implications in promoting greater diversity and transparency in the way in which all State-funded and fee-paying schools operate their intake policies. The Bill will go to an Oireachtas committee for consideration and Mr Quinn has signalled his willingness to respond to “reasonable suggestions for improvement”.
In view of the critical surveys and consultation processes that underpin these proposals, however, further changes are likely to be small. The measures outlined will apply to all 4,000 primary and post-primary schools and are designed to remove discriminatory practices against the admission of children with disabilities, from poor backgrounds or from immigrant and ethnic groups. Legislation will also provide for a parent-friendly appeals system.
The Bill goes further than addressing the elitist practices of most fee-paying schools. It identifies various forms of discrimination, exclusion and preferment that have operated right across the education system. Specifically, it states that schools may not refuse admittance because of special education needs, sexual orientation, family status, race, faith or religious tradition. In addition, schools will not be allowed to charge application fees; operate waiting lists or interview parents or their children for school places. Fee-paying schools, in particular, have been accused of operating ‘soft barriers’ to exclude children with special educational needs; of maintaining long waiting lists and of operating enrolment policies that are not transparent.
While not wishing to “overly intrude” in the day-to-day operation of schools, Mr Quinn has made it clear that institutions receiving State funds will have to introduce fair and transparent admission policies and provide a better service for parents. Schools will be required to publish enrolment criteria and, where waiting lists exist, they will be asked to phase them out within five years. It sounds like a tough approach and, considering the disjointed system that exists, it is. However, schools that consciously discriminate through their intake practices are unlikely to come out with their hands up.
At primary school level, once enrolment priorities have been published, such as living near the school, having a sibling as a former pupil or ensuring the characteristic spirit of the school, old systems may continue. Religious ethos can be used to prioritise membership of a particular church as a condition for enrolment. That is likely to cause social friction because of a rising birth rate and Catholic Church control of 90 per cent of primary schools.