Thursday 27 October 2016

New admission policies could discourage vital parent involvement in schools

Neale Richmond

Published 11/04/2015 | 02:30

Minister of Education Jan O'Sullivan
Minister of Education Jan O'Sullivan

Reserving just 10pc of places for the children of past pupils will weaken many schools' community spirit.

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In her great reveal, timed to coincide with the teaching unions' conferences, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan has unveiled a largely inoffensive draft School Admissions Bill.

The Bill will allow secondary schools to give preference to a child of a member of school staff; a student living in the catchment area; and someone attending a recognised feeder school. Existing provisions in equality legislation are provided for. Religious schools can give preference to children of a particular faith in preference to others.

It is also welcome that schools will be prohibited from favouring students on grounds such as: their prior attendance at a specified category of pre-school; the occupation or financial status of the parents of a student; a student's academic ability, skills or aptitude; and the date on which an application for admission was received by the school.

Crucially, schools will be able to give preference to a sibling of a student who is already enrolled. A secondary school is a vital part of any community and it is important for many families and indeed the schools that entire families are involved in the school.

Therefore, the fact that only 10pc of places will be reserved for the children of past pupils is extremely disappointing and will weaken many schools' community spirit. The previous minister, Ruairí Quinn, had indicated that a more likely figure would be 25pc.

The minister has not made it clear which 10pc of children of past pupils will have places reserved for them, how will this be decided? The vast majority of schools that this will affect are owned by a Board of Management, the members of which carry out their duties on a voluntary basis. This Bill will further burden these volunteers with excessive bureaucracy and discourage many of these volunteers from participating in the running of these schools.

Parents are a fantastic resource to any school, especially when it comes to tough tasks like fundraising, coaching sports teams or getting involved in renovation projects. By weakening the connection between the generations, this Bill could lessen that strong relationship and many parents will not have the same automatic draw to a school that they then dedicate so much time and effort to.

No consideration has been given to the impact this Bill will have on the wider family network within a school. Places for siblings are reserved, but no one has mentioned the role of cousins. The mundane practices of handing down uniforms or books and sharing lifts are just as common between cousins as they are between siblings.

Within this draft Bill, the issue of waiting lists is also disappointing; the expectation is that schools will be given possibly five years to phase out current waiting lists. From then on, applications will only be accepted a year in advance of the student's planned enrolment. Already many schools are fully subscribed to 2022. By forcing these schools to reopen their waiting lists, parents will be forced into a state of uncertainty when it comes to planning for their children's future.

On the face of it, prohibiting schools from charging a fee or contribution as part of the admission process seems reasonable. However, from an administrative process this will mean that parents can enrol their children in a number of schools and only commit to one school at the last possible minute. This is a common occurrence already at a primary level, allowing schools to charge a small fee might ensure a parent commits fully to sending their child to their chosen school, rather than blocking a school place across a number of schools. This Bill affects non fee-paying schools just as much as fee-paying schools, in many cases more so.

Only about 20pc of our schools are oversubscribed, this Bill will not majorly change this problem but by changing the already agreed rate of reserving 25pc of places to the children of past pupils to 10pc, it will drastically impact on a school's place within the wider community.

Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael Councillor on Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council

Irish Independent

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