Tuesday 24 April 2018

Traveller loses his appeal over school's preference for past pupils' children

Siobhan Cummiskey, solicitor for the Irish Traveller Movement with John Stokes, the
boy's father
Siobhan Cummiskey, solicitor for the Irish Traveller Movement with John Stokes, the boy's father
Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn's plans to reform enrolment policies for schools suffered a blow last night after a judge upheld the right of schools to prioritise the children of past pupils.

High Court judge Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy said that a Traveller boy who had no family links to a Clonmel school was not the only child disadvantaged by its enrolment policy, as many other children would be in the same position.

The family of John Stokes (14) had claimed that the Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, indirectly discriminated against him by favouring the children of past pupils.

The boy's mother, Mary Stokes, had taken the case on his behalf after he failed to get a place at the school in 2010.

The Circuit Court had earlier found that the school's policy of favouring the children of past pupils was justified, appropriate and necessary to fulfil its family ethos.

The school last night claimed that its policy had been vindicated, after the High Court judge rejected an appeal.

The long-running case could have far-reaching consequences for the power of schools to set their own enrolment criteria.

Mr Quinn has made it clear that he wants an end to policies favouring children of past pupils and will use legislation to do this, if necessary.

So-called 'sibling policies', whereby the brothers and sisters of pupils are favoured, may not be targeted as this is considered practical for families.

While some will support his position, many schools and parents are likely to resist any change as they support the principle of having an enrolment policy.

The case of John Stokes focused particularly on the rights of Traveller children because it was argued that, for cultural reasons, they were less likely to have a parent who had attended a secondary school before them.

But yesterday the High Court rejected Mrs Stokes' appeal, finding that the policy disadvantaged everyone who was not the son of a past pupil -- not just Travellers.

The ramifications for non-Traveller children and broader school enrolments remained unclear last night as the full judgment is yet to be published.

John Stokes, who is now in second year, has to travel 20 miles by bus to attend a different school in Fethard.

Minority

His father, John Snr, was in court yesterday. Mrs Stokes was unable to attend as she is due to give birth shortly. The family said they were "disappointed" by the outcome as they had hoped to help not only their own son, but other minority children.

Speaking on their behalf, the managing solicitor of the Irish Traveller Movement law centre, Siobhan Cummiskey, said: "They were hoping this case would break ground for minorities by removing this barrier.

"I think it was something they did for a lot of people and not just themselves and they were very conscious of that all the way through."

Meanwhile, the board of management of the school in question said that it was pleased with the High Court decision.

It said the school was consistently over-subscribed and so it had to refuse enrolment to more than 40 students every year.

The board added: "This ongoing situation causes major stress for all prospective students and parents and leaves the board in an impossible situation.

"This case . . . was never about a specific individual as John Stokes was one of the many applicants who did not get a place in 2010 and this was due entirely to the fact that the school was oversubscribed -- nothing else."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said Mr Quinn unveiled a discussion paper on school enrolment last summer. His officials are now co-ordinating the submissions which have been submitted from interested parties.

"The feedback from this consultation will help inform the nature and scope of a new regulatory framework for school enrolment," added the spokeswoman.

However, Damien Peelo, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, urged Mr Quinn to act quickly on the issue of enrolment policies.

Irish Independent

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