Wednesday 17 January 2018

'Brains or breeding' selection of pupils faces ban

Jessica Redden (17) and
Thea Shannon (18) look
happy after their Leaving
Cert geography exam at
Alexandra College in
Milltown, Dublin
Jessica Redden (17) and Thea Shannon (18) look happy after their Leaving Cert geography exam at Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin

Katherine Donnelly

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn plans to outlaw the practice of schools 'cherry-picking' pupils on the basis of brains or breeding.

In a major shake-up of the country's 4,000 primary and post-primary schools, the issue of how schools select pupils is to be overhauled.

There is growing disquiet about some schools not taking their fair share of pupils with special needs, or children from migrant or Traveller families.

It is particularly prevalent in fee-paying schools, which get over €100m a year from the taxpayer to pay salaries and help with building and other costs.

Mr Quinn will launch a discussion document on Monday setting out his priorities, and final decisions will be taken after the consultation process.

However, the exact details of how a system to stop cherry-picking would be policed have not yet been confirmed.

The 'old boys' tradition of giving priority to children of past pupils is one of the areas to be examined.

It comes after a recent Equality Tribunal ruling that a Traveller boy, John Stokes (13), suffered indirect discrimination when he failed to get a place in the Christian Brothers High School, Clonmel, Co Tipperary, last year.

The school prioritises applicants on the basis of being a Roman Catholic, having a brother of father who attended the school, and attendance at a local primary school.

While meeting two out of the three criteria, John did not comply with the parent or sibling rule -- and after a lottery to fill a limited number of available places, he failed to get in.

The school is appealing the ruling in the Circuit Court.

There is also controversy about how schools build up waiting lists on the basis of first-come, first-served, which can exclude families new to an area.

There was a furore in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, a few years ago when migrant families failed to find places for their children in local schools.

Schools are free to draw up their own admissions policies, so long as they are compatible with the law. It means schools cannot discriminate on grounds such as race, sexual orientation, gender or family status.

Schools are also allowed to protect their ethos, so denominational schools are legally entitled to give priority to children of a particular faith.

But there is evidence of subtle practices being used to exclude certain children, such as waiting lists and giving priority to siblings of existing or former pupils.

There were also reports of some secondary schools suggesting to parents that "the school down the road" is better equipped to deal with a child with special needs.

The matter of enrolment policies has been under review by the Department of Education for some years but this represents the first concrete step towards reform.

An audit of school enrolment practices conducted by former education minister Mary Hanafin found wide disparities between school types in relation to the number of pupils with special educational needs on their rolls.

At second-level, vocational schools were found to have a much higher concentration of pupils with special needs than schools traditionally run by the religious.

Irish Independent

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