All you need to know about new school admission laws

A ban on putting baby’s name down for school, limits on places for children of past pupils and rules for opting out of religion: the new legislation comes into effect soon

So, why the shake-up in school admissions laws?

There have been long-standing concerns over how difficult it can be for some sections of the community to get a school place.

The Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, says new laws around admission will ensure greater transparency, equity and consistency in school enrolment generally.

From next week, every school will have three months to draft a new school admission policy to make sure it meets the requirements of the Education (Admissions to School Act). This will involve consulting patrons, staff and parents of current pupils on the new rules.

READ MORE

These new policies must be published by September 1st of this year at the latest and they will apply for admissions for the 2021/2022 school year.

Waiting lists

I put my baby's name down on the waiting list for our secondary school. Will my child still get a place?

The new legislation will place a ban on these kinds of long-term waiting lists. However, a five-year period is being given to schools to allow current waiting lists to expire.

This, says the Department of Education, will allow schools to “honour commitments they have already made to parents”.

Some young children currently on waiting lists, however, will lose out. Those down on waiting lists to start in the years leading up to the 2026/2027 are safe; waiting lists beyond this date will have to be scrapped.

Oversubscribed schools may, however, keep waiting lists for the year prior to admission to give parents a sense of how many other children are ahead of their child in the queue for places.

So, if waiting lists are due to be banned, when, exactly, will I be able to apply for a school place for my child?

Schools may run their admission processes from October 1st onwards in the year prior to enrolment.

The department says the advantage of having a clear starting date is that parents will know with certainty that schools will not start accepting applications before this key date.

Once this date arrives, they must then be alert to the possibility of the school(s) in which they are interested commencing their admission process.

Priority

So, who gets priority in admissions under the new laws?

Schools will be required by law to accept all applicants where they have spare places.

If they are oversubscribed, schools may use selection criteria such as whether a child has a sibling in the school, went to a certain feeder school, lives in a certain catchment area, etc. These policies must be published and clearly stated.

There will also be limits on the proportion of places that may be set aside for children of past pupils (see below for more details) and for children of minority religions (see below).

What rules apply over accepting a school place?

The new legislation obliges schools to set out the manner and sequence in which selection criteria will be applied in the case of oversubscription.

Schools must also set out requirements for schools to make offers and for applicants to accept offers and arrangements where offers may be withdrawn.

Past pupils

I’m a past pupil of the school where I want to send my child. Will they still get priority?

At present schools can – in theory – set aside as many places as they want or children of past pupils. (Anecdotally, this “old school tie” provision is used extensively by many prestigious schools .)

Under new rules which come into force for admissions for the 2021/2022 school year, no more than 25 per cent of school places may be set aside for children or grandchildren of past pupils.

This figure was settled on by political parties when the legislation was being debated in the Oireachtas.

The school where I want to send my child conducts interviews as part of the admissions process. Will this continue?

No. The new legislation will prohibit interviews, consideration of a student’s academic ability, skills or aptitude, consideration of a parent’s occupation, financial status, academic ability, skills or aptitude as a consideration for the offer of a place.

An interview may be taken into account, however, for admission to the residential element of a boarding school.

Will I need to pay a fee as part of admissions?

Some schools have been doing this in recent years, but it will now be banned. The new legislation prohibits the charging of fees for an application for admission to a school, or for continued enrolment.

(Exceptions are included in relation to fee-charging secondary schools, the boarding element in boarding schools and admission to post leaving or further education courses run by secondary schools.)

In addition, no charge may be made for instruction in any subject of the school curriculum or for recreation or other activities where all pupils are expected to take part.

Voluntary contributions may be sought from parents, but only on the basis that a child’s place in a school is not dependent on making a contribution.

Special needs

I have a child who has special educational needs. Do I need to tell the school about their needs when applying?

No. Schools will not be permitted to ask about a child’s academic ability or aptitude. Some parents, however, may wish to bring this up in any case to ensure they are satisfied the school has the experience of assisting children with special needs.

My child has been assessed as requiring a special class – but my local school doesn't have one. Will this new legislation change anything?

Under provisions that came into force in late 2018, the Minister for Education now has the power – after a process of consultation with the National Council for Special Education, the board of management and the patron of a school – to compel a school to open a special class. This happened in Dublin 15 last year and may happen again in south Dublin this year.

Religion

The primary school where I want to send my child is Catholic, though my child is not baptised. Will they be put at the back of the queue?

No. Under a section of the legislation that came into force in late 2018, Catholic primary schools cannot discriminate in favour of children on the basis of religion. All applicants must be treated equally regardless of their religion.

There is an exception for minority religions, who may continue to discriminate in favour of children of their own faith if they are oversubscribed. This move, the department has said, is to protect the ethos of these schools.

These rules only apply to primary schools; secondary schools may continue to discriminate on religious grounds. (The explanation for these double standards, according to policy-makers, is that in the past 90 per cent of primary schools are Catholic; but there is greater diversity and choice at second level).

My child will be going to a Catholic school, but he doesn't practise the religion. What are the rules around attending religious events? 

Under separate legislation, all children are entitled to opt out of religion (or, in fact, anything that is contrary to the conscience of a parent).

This still applies. The only change it that schools will be obliged to provide details of arrangements in place for children who opt out of religious instruction.

Many schools distingush between "religious education" - which they define as  learning about religion,  and "instruction", such as faith formation in a specific religion.