Jan O’Sullivan must ensure schools admission policy allows equality of access

Parents perceive a lack of accountability and transparency regarding admissions policies

‘Jan O’Sullivan has shown leadership this week. It is important that she holds firm and goes further to ensure that the State combats all discrimination, both overt and hidden, to access education in order to respect the human dignity of all children and their families.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘Jan O’Sullivan has shown leadership this week. It is important that she holds firm and goes further to ensure that the State combats all discrimination, both overt and hidden, to access education in order to respect the human dignity of all children and their families.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Fiona Collins is a principal in Francis Street CBS in the Liberties in Dublin, a school that continues to transform the lives of many boys and their families during their primary school education. Collins, like many teachers in Ireland, is well aware of the vital place schools occupy in the lives of children, their families and communities and executes her role with great gumption.

Francis Street CBS recently became a “changemaker school” with a new programme empowering young people to be changemakers – children with empathy, creativity, teamwork and leadership skills that support them in reaching their full potential. In my experience, teachers, after parents, are the strongest and most tenacious advocates for children, in particular for children who are vulnerable.

June this year is a significant month in the human rights calendar, specifically in relation to the State’s international and voluntary accountability for socioeconomic rights in Ireland.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs will appear before the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and separately in June the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will hold a “pre-sessional” hearing where consideration is given to the analyses from independent human rights institutions and nongovernmental organisations about children’s rights.

The universality of the right to education is reflected in our Constitution and in the aforementioned international human rights instruments, which are under imminent UN scrutiny.

Provision on right to education

Article 13 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights is one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive human rights provisions on the right to education. It states that education, in all its forms and at all levels, should exhibit the following essential features: availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability.

“Admission statements” as they are now referred to in the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2015 inevitably have an impact on all of these factors.

The right to education is also a core feature of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recognises that access to education may be undermined by discrimination, stating that discrimination, “whether it is overt or hidden, offends the human dignity of the child and is capable of undermining or even destroying the capacity of the child to benefit from educational opportunities”.

Perennial and hidden discrimination

What is most problematic in Ireland is not the overt but the perennial and hidden nature of discrimination. The Stokes case concerned a boy, a member of the Traveller community, who claimed, through his mother, that he was indirectly discriminated against by reason of the admissions policy of a school.

The school’s admission policy prioritised applicants on the basis of satisfying three criteria: first, being a Catholic; second, attending a certain named primary school; and, third, having a father or sibling who attended the school before him, often referred to as the “parent rule”. Although John met the first two criteria, he did not meet the third.

While the case does not address the core issue, the extent to which schools’ admissions policies must ensure equality of access across the grounds covered by the equality legislation, this is an important case, for a number of reasons. Schools’ admissions policies have been shown to have an impact not only on members of the Traveller community but also on new migrant communities, those of minority faiths or none, and children with disabilities.

Lack of accountability and transparency

Many of the calls we receive in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission public information service raise this very issue, with many parents confused and frustrated when their children cannot gain a place in a local school. They perceive a lack of accountability and transparency in relation to admissions policies.

Four years ago, in June 2011, the then minister for education and skills, Ruairí Quinn, made a commitment to ensuring equality of educational opportunity “through inclusive, transparent and fair enrolment policies and practices in our schools”. He also proposed a cap of 25 per cent on the “parent rule”.

The new figure of 10 per cent proposed this week by Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan does not appear in the Bill and will be, in the Minister’s words, “teased out” following the enactment of the legislation, when consultations on the regulations take place. She indicated that consideration had been given to a recommendation by the Oireachtas Committee on Education that the derogation in the general scheme be removed altogether.

Leadership

Individual school admission policies are governed by the Education Act 1998, which promotes equality of access and participation in education, parental choice and enhanced transparency in decision-making.

Jan O’Sullivan has shown leadership this week. It is important that she holds firm and goes further to ensure that the State combats all discrimination, both overt and hidden, to access education in order to respect the human dignity of all children and their families. Emily Logan is chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

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