Tuesday 12 December 2017

Children of past pupils to be curbed in schools

Brigid Quilligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, outside the Supreme Court following the ruling yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Brigid Quilligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, outside the Supreme Court following the ruling yesterday. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

SCHOOLS will face severe restrictions on the number of places they can reserve for children of past pupils, despite a Supreme Court decision supporting the 'parent rule'.

The high-profile case taken against a Christian Brothers school has thrown a spotlight on plans for an overhaul of admissions systems used by some schools to prioritise selection of children for enrolment.

Currently, there is no limit on schools when it comes to allocating places to children of past pupils, but draft legislation proposes capping it at 25pc.

That proposal was first mooted by former education minister Ruairi Quinn. The Irish Independent has learned that current minister Jan O'Sullivan intends to go even further.

The proposed curb on the "parent rule" has caused a furore in certain quarters, including fee-paying schools who do not want any interference in who they may enrol. But even in the wake of yesterday's Supreme Court judgment, the minister is holding firm in her view that there is no good reason for schools to be allowed to hold even one in four places for children of past pupils.

"The minister still hasn't heard a compelling argument as to why 25pc of school places should be held for children of past pupils," her spokesperson said.

A school admission bill is expected to be published before Easter with a view to enacting it before the summer.

Ms O'Sullivan said she would listen to all the arguments while the draft legislation is being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas but "remains to be convinced" about value of the parent rule.

The Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Mary Stokes, that a school discriminated against her son John by giving preference to the children of past pupils when it came to enrolments.

His father was of a generation when few Travellers attended second-level school, and the family argued that this discriminated indirectly against Traveller children.

The case involving CBS High School, Clonmel, Co Tipperary has already been before the Equality Tribunal, the Circuit Court and High Court. The Supreme Court said there was insufficient evidence put before both an Equality Tribunal and the Circuit Court to enable them make a proper assessment if John Stokes was particularly disadvantaged after he was refused a place at the school.

Among the other measures proposed in the new legislation now being proposed by Ms O'Sullivan are an end to first-come, first-served admission policies, while it will allow schools to give priority to siblings. Ms O'Sullivan said she would listen to all the arguments while the draft legislation is being debated in the Oireachtas but "remains to be convinced" about supporting the 25pc "parent rule" clause.

The minister's spokesperson said they were awaiting the full written judgment from the five-person Supreme Court.

It remains to be seen whether the minister will come under further pressure from her Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues when the admissions bill is published, as her predecessor Ruairi Quinn did before proposing to allow schools to enrol 25pc of children of past pupils.

The proposed new laws are intended to introduce more transparency and fair treatment into school entry rules, but the provision allowing 25pc of places for children of past pupils has proved controversial.

Many schools - and not only in the fee-paying sector - did not want any restriction, while others argued strongly that children of past pupils should get no special treatment at all.

The former Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, the Traveller Movement and the Oireachtas Education Committee are among those opposed to allowing any special treatment for children of past pupils.

In her new role as Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Emily Logan last night called for the State to respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

She said schools' admission policies impacted on all minority communities but said the difficulty in tackling alleged discrimination "is evident" from the Supreme Court judgment. This is placing a burden on schools to "self-regulate", she said.

Throughout the various proceedings, CBS High School had denied that its admissions policy was discriminatory. It argued that in the year John Stokes applied, 2010, there was an over-subscription with 174 applications for 140 available places. It claimed it has a policy of inclusiveness with members of the Travelling Community.

Mrs Stokes claimed the all-boys school selected students based on three criteria: the child's father or an older sibling must have attended it, that the prospective student be Catholic and that he had attended a local feeder school. John met the last two criteria, but not the first. Following a lottery process, John was not admitted and instead went to another school.

After bringing an unsuccessful appeal against the decision not to enrol John to the Department of Education, Mrs Stokes made a complaint to the Equality Tribunal. It found that requiring a parent to have previously attended the school disproportionately affected Travellers. The school appealed that decision to the Circuit Court, which in 2011 set aside the order of the Tribunal.

Judge Tom Teehan found the parental rule was discriminatory against groups, including Travellers, but its admissions policy could be justified by a legitimate aim.

That decision was appealed by Mrs Stokes, on a point of law relating to the interpretation of Section 28 of 2000 Equal Status Act, to the High Court which upheld the Circuit Court decision. Mrs Stokes then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Judge Adrian Hardiman and William McKechnie held no right of appeal existed before the Supreme Court. Mr Justice Frank Clarke, with whom judges John Murray and Donal O'Donnell agreed, said he was satisfied a right of appeal "on a point of law" did exist. However, Mr Justice Clarke said he was satisfied to dismiss the appeal as there was insufficient evidence before the Circuit Court or the Equality Tribunal to carry out a proper assessment.

Irish Independent

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