On the way to their first pregnancy scan, the parents stop by the local school. Places are scarce, and they’re here to put the name of their future child down on a waiting list.
Actually, this is an apocryphal tale and usually told as a joke – schools require a name and a date of birth to enrol a child or put them on a waiting list – but it’s nonetheless one that rings true for many parents.
And in some parts of Dublin, Cork and other pockets of the country such as Wexford, it bitterly illustrates the crisis in the availability of school places. It tells of a frustration that waiting lists can exclude newcomers to an area.
Around 20 per cent of schools are oversubscribed, and waiting lists are one way for them to manage numbers. But, along with a school baptism barrier which creates difficulties for the children of non-religious parents in a system where over 90 per cent of primary schools are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, it seems that school waiting lists may be on the way out.
This is as part of a suite of changes planned by Minister for Education Richard Bruton, which will also see a ban on school admission fees and a 25 per cent cap on the number of school places that can be reserved for the children of past pupils.
The legislation, due to re-enter the Dáil this month, is due to be passed in time for the coming school year. (Separate legislation aimed at limiting or removing the baptism barrier is due to be debated later this year).
The rationale for the change is that waiting lists can discriminate against immigrants or people who have relocated within Ireland; it is especially bad for business if, for instance, the CEO of an IDA-supported company moves their family to Ireland but cannot get their children into a local school.
Meena Baskarasubramanian, who is originally from India, moved to Ireland when her child was aged three. She is now on the board of Educate Together.
“The waiting list was a big disadvantage for me in accessing schools,” she says. “As a newcomer it was very discriminating. It also discriminates against people who are new to an area and may have to move for work. I’d like to see an end to putting the child’s name on the list as soon as they are born; a year or two before entry would be better.”
Catherine Martin is a Green Party TD for Dublin Rathdown in south Dublin, a constituency with a high number of oversubscribed schools. She is also the party's education spokeswoman.
“My child was four weeks old in 2007 when I was told it was too late to put their name down for a [secondary] school in 2019. That is wrong. There needs to be sustainable access to a school for your child near your home. Primary schools are announced in an area without a corresponding announcement for a second-level.”
However, the proposed past-pupil limit is controversial. Bruton's two predecessors, Labour ministers for education Ruairí Quinn and Jan O'Sullivan, proposed similar legislation but never got it through the Dáil.
O’Sullivan’s proposal to cap the number of reserved places at 10 per cent faced particular opposition.
Back in 2014, the past pupils' union of Blackrock College and Belvedere College, two prestigious fee-paying schools in Dublin, had urged its members to fight the legislation.
Opponents accused Labour of being ideologically-driven and deliberately targeting wealthier parents who might want to send their child to the fee-paying school they and perhaps even the child’s grandparent went to.
It is harder now to levy the same accusation at Fine Gael's Bruton, although there is some internal opposition and concern within the party. Fianna Fáil has yet to be convinced.
Three years on the Blackrock College Past Pupil’s Union declined to comment on whether it would oppose it again. However, there does seem to be less implacable opposition than before, although this may change as the Bill comes closer to law.
Until now schools have had fairly wide discretion to set their own admissions policies. Schools were unwilling to go on the record for this article but privately many are concerned that there may be legal difficulties in situations where a child’s name was placed on a waiting list “in good faith” a few years ago, only now to lose their place with the abolition of lists.
However, The Irish Times understands there will be transitional provisions put in place which means that parents whose children are already on waiting lists will be afforded some level of protection, and that the appropriate time period for phasing in the new rules will be discussed and teased out.
Wexford town has five second-level schools in the vicinity and all are oversubscribed. Research carried out by Wexford Council suggests this will continue until 2021.
“Part of the challenge is that they all operate their own waiting lists and, because places are scarce, they understandably apply for every school they can, which exacerbates the situation,” says local FF TD James Brown.
Although his party has not yet reached a decision, Brown is broadly supportive. He believes that a centralised school applications system could help alleviate the problem.
However, in Co Louth local FG TD Peter Fitzpatrick says schools have no choice but to operate a waiting list if they are oversubscribed.
“There is real concern at local level among parents that they will be unable to send their children to a school they have attended if a restriction is placed in legislation, and I support this concern.”
Parents themselves are divided on the proposed changes. The National Parents Council (Post Primary) has not yet formulated a policy because waiting lists suit some parents more than others, although they are engaged in discussions.
Its former public relations officer Lynda O’Shea last year said that the immediate abolition of waiting lists would frustrate many parents, and that they should be phased out over a longer period.
John Curtis is general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents school management in over 400 secondary schools. It believes that the siblings and children of past pupils should be given priority where oversubscription applies.
“Only about 20 per cent of schools are oversubscribed so this is not a huge issue,” he says. “Schools are community-based, so there is a case for [giving space to] the children of past pupils and siblings.
“The practice of prioritising siblings and children of past pupils arose from a concern for continuity of family experience and parental choice.
“Schools, like families, are not solely operational entities; they thrive on relationships, values, continuity, local community cohesion and loyalties built up over time and, indeed, generations.
“No matter what happens, you won’t come up with a system that suits everyone where a school is oversubscribed. Neither this draft legislation, nor indeed any legislation, can address the fact that in some areas throughout the country there is a shortage of school places. We would prefer a regulatory framework, not a legislative one.”
Case study: “Six weeks after my son was born I started sending in school applications”
Sadhbh Kurzawska is all too familiar with the difficulties of securing a school place for a child. Six weeks after her son was born, she started sending in school applications.
“At the time I was living in Clonskeagh [Co Dublin] which is oversubscribed. We knew we would be buying a house somewhere in the next five years, but we didn’t know where, and this compounded our problem. I kept a spreadsheet of the 12 schools I applied to.
“They had different rules: in some you could only apply two years before entry, whereas in others you could put the child’s name down from birth. Only about half of them actually gave me a receipt.”
Kurzawska spoke to her friends and found that many of them were in the same boat. She realised that she could help alleviate the problem so she set up PrimarySchools.ie, an online national enrolment system for Ireland's primary schools which is aimed at simplifying the process for both parents and schools, and also provides an "audit trail" for the process.
They launched last September, and in that time Kurzawska says her conversations with parents suggest Dublin is the most oversubscribed area. “They say that the use of waiting lists causes problems by excluding newcomers, while schools giving preference to children from certain preschools also disadvantages them.
“They raised concerns about admissions fees, and overly intrusive data requests such as parental occupation. But the most contentious issue is religion. We need more schools and more choice.
“People who are not denominational have no choice but to send their child far away if they’re in an oversubscribed area. The schools admissions Bill will go some way to addressing some but not all of the inequities.”
Time for a centralised enrolment system?
Luke O’Shaughnessy * of Educate Together points out that individual schools have different enrolment policies based on diverse criteria, and there is no co-ordination between schools or patrons, with the State completely outside the process. The organisation is calling for a centralised enrolment system. How would this work?
“An independent State authority, managed independently of the school patrons, would write to all parents of school-entry age the year before their children are due to enter school to seek their preference of school and school type,” he says. This would alleviate an administrative burden on schools, decrease social segregation and impose transparent criteria.
It is already being piloted in the Lucan area in Co Dublin, where five Educate Together schools have come together to develop the Lucan Common Enrolment System. O’Shaughnessy says this is working well, but that there needs to be wider changes to school admissions in Ireland.
Educate Together is particularly concerned that new Educate Together schools must give preference to children in a given geographical area, whereas religious-run schools do not have the same restriction.
* This article was amended on March 7th, 2017, to edit an incorrect surname.