Saturday 20 July 2019

Expect almighty row between FG and Labour as O'Sullivan seeks to loosen old-school ties

The great guessing game is over and Jan O’Sullivan is about to set off the most almighty row between Labour and Fine Gael, whose ministers will be lobbied intensely by the fee-paying schools sector
The great guessing game is over and Jan O’Sullivan is about to set off the most almighty row between Labour and Fine Gael, whose ministers will be lobbied intensely by the fee-paying schools sector

John Walshe

The great guessing game is over and Jan O'Sullivan is about to set off the most almighty row between Labour and Fine Gael, whose ministers will be lobbied intensely by the fee-paying schools sector.

And the legal eagles who are products of some of the country's best-known schools will be dusting down case law for the inevitable legal challenge if the minister succeeds in limiting reserved places in schools to 10pc for children of past pupils.

They were unhappy enough with Ruairi Quinn's offer to keep 25pc of places for the offspring of former pupils. He was initially of the view that there should be no provision of any kind for them. But he was persuaded that this would seriously hit fundraising activities by past pupils who would be reluctant to support their alma mater if there was no guarantee their children could follow in their school footsteps.

The Oireachtas committee on education wasn't happy with the 25pc suggestion and wanted Mr Quinn to revert to his starting position - ie, no places at all set aside for children of past pupils. His successor instinctively shares this view but has come up with the compromise figure of 10pc.

However, it is still all to play for, as the final figure will feature in the regulations rather than in the legislation. The minister has promised consultation on what goes into those regulations and will come under a lot of pressure to at least revert to the 25pc figure, if not to give all schools the right to give unrestricted priority to children of past pupils.

But Ms O'Sullivan won't be the only minister under pressure. Direct approaches will be made again to the Taoiseach's office as they were when Mr Quinn first announced his intentions.

PR and lobbying people will be hired if they haven't been already. Fine Gael ministers and TDs will be particularly targeted for their support against this "draconian" and "unnecessary" piece of legislation which, it will be claimed, is an unnecessary intrusion on the autonomy of the schools.

A lot of this lobbying will be done behind the scenes, as it is hard for fee-paying schools to argue in public that the old-boy or old-girl network should be preserved without interference, even if the State is paying them nearly €100m in teachers' salaries.

However, it's not just the fee-paying schools that want to preserve automatic passage for children of past pupils. For instance, certain schools in the Dublin area associated with the GAA want to enrol the children of past pupils who have graced Croke Park and who give of their time and money to support their old school.

And it will be recalled that the recent court challenge by a Traveller family in the case involving the High School in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, came up against the past pupils' provision. Although it did not directly support reserving places for children of past pupils, the Supreme Court did not find that the school's rule discriminated indirectly against Travellers. The lawyers will be poring over that judgment, seeking to extract as much as they can from it.

The Admissions to Schools Bill does, however, avoid an even bigger row by allowing denominational schools to continue to give priority to pupils from their particular faith. In other words, over-subscribed Catholic schools can legally continue to give preference to Catholic applicants. This has the unfortunate consequence of forcing reluctant parents in some parts to baptise their children to ensure access to a local school because of the absence of a real alternative. And there is no alternative in too many parts of the country.

The controversies over the bill will over-shadow its main achievement, which is to secure something approaching a level playing field for applicants to all schools. Although it is often argued that problems arise in only the 20pc of schools that are oversubscribed, that overlooks the 'soft' and subtle barriers to children with special needs seeking to enrol in other schools.

The draft legislation is very detailed. It means that schools cannot charge an application fee (except for boarding and fee-charging schools) and cannot require a photograph, references from a previous school, information about the parents, the student's medical condition or special needs. Schools cannot require a student or parent to attend an interview, open day or other meeting as a condition of admission.

This will put pressure on schools to take all comers. A new appeals procedure against refusal to enrol is also envisaged.

Ms O'Sullivan hopes the bill will be passed before the summer recess, although that's an ambitious timetable. Once it's passed, draft regulations will be put out for consultation to the education partners before the final regulations are approved by Government. Then the fun will really begin. John Walshe was special adviser to former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn

Irish Independent

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