independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Shake-up means parents face school places lottery

PARENTS could face a lottery to decide whether children get their favoured school place under a shake-up of admissions policy rules.

Radical proposals from Education Minister Ruairi Quinn will lead to the tightest controls ever on the country's 4,000 primary and post-primary schools about who they take in.

The lottery could arise where demand for places exceeds supply and it would be seen as the fairest way to allocate available places.

The changes will affect the 20pc of schools that use selective criteria. All other schools can accommodate demand.

Under the reforms, a key measure will oblige schools to put a limit on the number of places reserved for children of past pupils.

The proposed changes also include an end to first-come, first-served admission policies. This means parents will no longer be able to secure a guaranteed place for their children in their first choice school simply by applying early.

And there will be curtailment of pre-enrolment compulsory open days and interviews, and a ban on booking deposits.

The new rules will be underpinned by legislation. The minister will bring his plans to Cabinet shortly, ahead of public discussion on the changes.

The revelations come as Mr Quinn oversees a period of major change across the schools system which includes reforms to school patronage, the Croke Park II deal and the potential closure of some schools.

He faced heckling as he addressed teachers' unions the INTO in Cork and the ASTI in Wexford, with 600 of the 800 INTO delegates holding 'red cards' aloft in protest at cutbacks.

Later, in Wexford, silence greeted Mr Quinn as he walked to the podium for his address and around 10 delegates walked out during the speech.

Mr Quinn told the Irish Independent that he would not speculate on what sanctions may be imposed on schools that break the rules ahead of consideration of his proposals by the Cabinet.

Schools have responsibility to draw up their own admissions policies, so long as they are compatible with the law, which does not allow discrimination on grounds such as race or disability.

Mr Quinn said he did not want to intrude unnecessarily on how schools do their business, but that he wanted a more structured, fair and transparent system. He warned that some methods of controlling admissions would no longer be permitted.

About one in five schools currently have selective admissions policies. They use these to help them maintain a stream of good results, which in turn drives parental demand.

Mr Quinn's plans will cause discomfort among schools with a history of cherry-picking students on the basis of academic ability or because of family links to the school -- the very practices that the rules are designed to eliminate.

There is concern that schools that use brains or breeding as a basis for selecting pupils leave others carrying an unfair burden in terms of pupils who are less academic or have a special educational need.

Mr Quinn spoke about an "over-use of the preferential treatment for the children of past pupils or, more insidiously, the requirement for children and their parents to attend compulsory open days or be interviewed".

Open days and interviews are used by some schools to screen both parents and prospective students.

"These practices will be curtailed," said Mr Quinn.

He also said the "first-come, first-served" basis for selecting students might look reasonable, but that it could exclude children who move from other parts of the country.

"That situation cannot be allowed," he warned.

This change will have implications for existing waiting lists, although Mr Quinn said that schools would be given time to implement the changes.

He is also banning booking deposits, a common practice at second-level, with application fees ranging from €50 to €200, and usually non-refundable.

SIBLINGS

Mr Quinn will also address the so-called "sibling rule", under which schools give priority to brothers and sisters of pupils or past pupils.

Under the proposals, siblings of existing pupils will be given priority, but not the siblings of past pupils.

Many parents will be happy with a second- or third-choice school and will opt to take a place somewhere other than their top preference. But where schools have applied all the new rules and demand exceeds supply, they may have to run a lottery for places.

Mr Quinn's proposals arise from a consultation process that he set in train in June 2011, when he published a discussion document on enrolment polices.

He told the ASTI conference yesterday that the Education Act 1998 set out clearly that schools were required to operate admissions policies that provide for maximum accessibility to schools.

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