Will Quinn impose sanctions to stop 'apartheid' in schools?


ANALYSIS:WHILE THE judge ruled in favour of the Clonmel school, this case has been groundbreaking.

Despite yesterday’s ruling, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn appears determined to press ahead with changes to school admissions policies.

It was one of the factors that prompted the Minister to publish a discussion document on school admission policies in June.

In the Clonmel case, the school gave priority to Catholic applicants whose fathers or brothers were past pupils.

In practice, this means that a whole swathe of students – Travellers, most foreign nationals and non-Catholics among them – can be excluded from the school.

For the department, and particularly for Quinn, this kind of exclusion is intolerable, especially when the range of alternative (ie non-Catholic ) school options is so limited in most rural towns.

To date, the Minister has adopted a softly, softly approach to the issue, publishing his discussion document and requesting submissions from interested parties.

In June, he said 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 hints that schools should no longer be able to use “siblings policies”, waiting lists or would-be pupils’ academic reports to discriminate against students.

At present, schools are free to draw up their own admissions criteria provided these are consistent with equality legislation. But a 2006 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.

Some were even “cherry-picking” the best and the brightest students, an illegal practice under the Education Act. At the time, Mary Hanafin, as minister for education, accused some schools of using “subtle practices” to exclude certain students. Ruairí Quinn’s discussion document signals that schools should no longer be able to discriminate against pupils in these ways.

Yesterday, the department said it had noted the Clonmel ruling. But it also underlined how, following consultation with interested parties, a new regulatory framework would be drawn up to address “how best to allocate school places to prospective students”.

Clearly, the department does not believe that all schools can be trusted to implement fair admissions policies. And there is good reason to believe this on the basis of its own audit and the “educational apartheid” practised by some fee-paying schools, according to the Teachers’ Union of Ireland.

The question now is how radical Quinn will be.

Will he be content with a new voluntary code of practice? Or will he move to impose tough new sanctions on schools that discriminate and exclude?