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Tuesday 20 February 2018

Court backs 'old boy' admissions policy at school

Breda Heffernan and Conor Kane

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn is on a collision course with school managers after a court yesterday upheld their right to enforce 'old boy' enrolment policies.

Mr Quinn has made it clear he will, if necessary, introduce legislation aimed at banning practices such as favouring the children of past pupils and teachers.

However, a ruling by the Circuit Court in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, yesterday threw this into doubt. It found that a school had not unfairly discriminated against a Traveller boy by using a 'parental rule' as part of its admissions policy.

Judge Thomas Teehan said the policy of the High School in Clonmel was justified, appropriate and necessary to fulfil the school's family ethos.

He set aside a ruling of the Equality Authority which found that the school had indirectly discriminated against local Traveller boy John Stokes because he was unlikely to have had a parent in secondary school.

While John did fulfil two of the school's three criteria -- he is a Roman Catholic and attended one of the local feeder primary schools -- he failed on the third criterion of having a brother or parent who was a past pupil.

There were 174 applications for 140 first-year places in 2010.

A lottery was used to allocate the remaining places among those who did not meet all three criteria and John was unsuccessful in this.

His family initially took the case to the Equality Authority, which found last December that the school had indirectly discriminated against him and that he should be admitted.

The school appealed that decision to the Circuit Court and at a court hearing in May, principal Shay Bannon told how, of eight applications from members of the Travelling community during his 20 years in Clonmel, John's was the first not to succeed.

Allowing the High School's appeal, Judge Teehan said that while it could be stated unequivocally that the 'parental rule' was discriminatory against Travellers and other groups, such as the Nigerian and Polish communities, the onus was on the school to justify that the rule had a legitimate aim.

He decided that the rule was "entirely in keeping" with the school's goal to support the family ethos within education. He also found that it was appropriate given that the school was over-subscribed.

"It may be that the Oireachtas should look, or look again, at the issue of providing a mandatory requirement for positive discrimination in school admission policies," the judge suggested.

Neither John Stokes nor his mother Mary were present in court to hear the judgment.

Last night, Mary Stokes said she was "very, very disappointed" with the ruling and that the whole family felt "let down" by the education system.

Her son John was "very stressed" as a result of events, she said. "He just wants to be a normal teenager and go to school and receive his education."

Mrs Stokes said she intended to appeal. "I'm going to the High Court and, if it has to go further, it will do," she said.

Mr Bannon said he had no comment to make on the ruling and the chairman of the school board of management, Michael O'Brien, said there would be no comment until they had discussed the ruling.

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