Subtle form of apartheid permeates school system

 

ANALYSIS:The Department of Education's audit of school enrolment policies is a landmark document with huge implications for schools, writes Seán Flynn, Education Editor.

THE TWO-TIER nature of Irish education at second level is exposed in the Department of Education's audit. In many areas, provisions for the children of immigrants, those with special education needs and Travellers are largely confined to vocational and community schools.

There is a class divide permeating the Irish education system at second level.

In large provincial towns, better-off girls gravitate towards the convent school while boys enrol at the voluntary secondary school run by one of the religious orders.

The task of educating the childrenof immigrants or those with special learning needs is a job for other schools in the town.

The pattern is similar in Dublin, especially on the south side, where there is virtually no provision for special needs students in many "elite" schools.

But it is a very subtle form of apartheid. There are no signs outside any of these schools proclaiming "newcomers or special needs not welcome".

Instead, parents seeking enrolment will be told that the school has little experience in these areas; they might be better off in the local vocational and community schools.

There are other means of maintaining the status quo. Enrolment policies that favour past pupils and siblings can be used to exclude children of immigrants. The "first come, first served" approach of some schools can also work against them.

According to Minister for Education Mary Hanafin, some schools with few "newcomer" or special needs pupils could use this perception of elitism to recruit more pupils.

And parents cannot be absolved of blame. In a recent address, Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin scolded parents - especially those in prosperous Dublin suburbs - who have scant interest in real diversity in schools.

So what can be done about the cherrypicking and discrimination?

At present the only recourse available to an unhappy parent whose child is refused entry to a school is Section 29 of the Education Act. But, as Ms Hanafin acknowledges, few parents are even aware of its existence - and some schools are in no hurry tp point parents in the right direction. Section 29 is slow, cumbersome and ineffective.

Ideally, the Minister would like schools in each area to adopt a common enrolment policy.

But in her letter to the various education partners, she acknowledges this is not always possible as various schools compete for pupils, at a time when school numbers are declining at second

level.

But the Minister is getting tougher. Regional officers will be asking schools to explain their enrolment procedures.

The Minister is also edging towards some form of new regulation in the area. This might include the appointment of a new admissions officer in each region who would enforce fair admission policies.

The Teachers' Union of Ireland, many of whose members work in vocational schools, wants sanctions against schools that refuse to shoulder their responsibilities.

Specifically, the TUI wants the Government to withhold State funding from any fee-paying school that cherrypicks some students and refuses to enrol others. (Curiously, fee-paying schools were not included in the audit).

To date, the Minister has been reluctant to take this kind of robust approach. Indeed, there is little discussion of any possible new sanctions in her letter to the education partners.

But it is clear that the political - and what one might call the moral - pressure on schools to act responsibly is being ratcheted up.

In all, 1,998 schools were audited (1,572 at primary and 426 at post-primary).

Broadly, the picture at primary level was more positive, although the scant number of special needs pupils and other minorities in the Galescoileann will raise questions.

The INTO said last night that it was clear that community superseded religion and other considerations at primary level.

"The local primary school appears to be the school of choice for the majority of parents. In turn, primary schools enrol children from their localities. This is one of the great strengths of the Irish primary education system and everyone in education should strive to maintain it," said INTO.