Supreme Court verdict on enrolment policy
This morning the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on whether or not a school’s enrolment policy of favouring the children of past pupils over others amounts to indirect discrimination against children from the Traveller community.
It dismissed an appeal by the boy’s mother Mary Stokes.
She had argued that the measure disproportionately affected Travellers because they were statistically less likely to have parents who had ever attended secondary school.
Today’s decision relates only to one school – Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel – but the ruling will be of interest to many others because the so-called ‘parent’s rule’ affects many others.
It is also a policy that is close to the hearts of many schools, including fee-charging schools.
The Department of Education has long been concerned by the issue of school admission policies.
It’s concerned that some schools use provisions in their enrolment policy to ‘cherry pick’ students; that so-called ‘soft barriers’ are used to in effect exclude children from certain backgrounds, or children with disabilities.
A new bill to govern admission policies is due to be published in the near future; the aim, to do away with such barriers, and to make schools more open to all.
One issue the bill is expected to address is the so-called ‘parent rule’.
This is a provision found in the enrolment policies of many of the country’s fee-charging schools.
It is also used by many of the more popular non fee-charging schools; schools that would typically be long established and catering mainly to stable, middle class catchment areas.
The measure states that, in cases of over-subscription, priority will be given to applicants who have a parent who attended the school.
In 2011 the Department published a discussion paper on admission policies.
That document recommended the banning of this practice, which makes it harder for people like immigrants, Travellers, or anyone who has moved to a different town to enrol their children.
But after a period of consultation the then minister for education, Ruairi Quinn, changed his mind.
He decided to allow the practice, but only for 25% of places in any school.
In an interview with RTÉ News he said: “I’ve listened to the response of a lot of people, and for some people, people I know personally, people who went to my old school, Blackrock College, this is very important for them.”
The current Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, would appear to have a different view. She says she has yet to be convinced of the necessity of maintaining the parent provision.
The measure is opposed by immigrant groups, Traveller groups, and by others including the Teachers’ Union of Ireland.
They argue that it gives some children a hereditary right to a school place; that it discriminates against others, and that this adds to social and other inequalities and divisions between schools.
But the right to favour the children of past pupils in this way is a right that is very close to the hearts of many schools.
In a submission to the Department of Education, Christian Brothers High School in Clonmel argued that the measure maintained family connections; that it upheld “family values and pride in the school”; that it was “part of a long tradition that gave rise to strong bonds within and between families.”
The fee-charging schools sector is also vehemently opposed to any move to outlaw the practice.
The past pupil unions of Blackrock College and Belvedere College have urged its members to write to the Minister for Education expressing their opposition.
They call it unjust State interference, and “a stealth tactic to destroy private institutions”.
In letters to The Irish Times, opponents accuse the Department of “political correctness gone mad”.
The new school admissions bill is currently being drafted and is due to be published before Easter.
The Minister says she has yet to be convinced of the necessity of this measure.
Like her predecessor, it is most probable Jan O’Sullivan will have received many communications attempting to do just this.
Whether or not she is persuaded remains to be seen.