Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Questions (2)

Kathleen Funchion


2. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will introduce guidelines to ensure secondary schools have a policy in place to accept students from local feeder primary schools in order to ensure no child is left without a secondary school place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19782/19]

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Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Education)

Question No. 2 will be taken by Deputy Maurice Quinlivan.

I ask this question on behalf of my colleague Deputy Funchion, who cannot make it today. I have raised this issue with the Minister before. I seek an update on whether he intends to introduce guidelines to ensure that secondary schools have a policy of accepting students from local feeder primary schools to make sure that no child is left without a secondary school place, as happens too often in my home city.

I thank Deputy Funchion for asking this question and I acknowledge Deputy Quinlivan for raising it in the House.

To be clear at the outset, I have no plans to introduce such guidelines for feeder schools.

Regarding enrolment generally, it is my Department's responsibility to ensure that between them, schools can cater for all pupils seeking school places in an area. Parents can choose which school to apply to and where the school has places available the pupil should be admitted. In schools where there are more applicants than places available a selection process may be necessary. This selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. However, it may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in their school of first choice.

In this regard, a board of management may find it necessary to prioritise enrolment of children from particular areas or particular age groups or on the basis of some other criterion. For example, some schools give priority to applicants who have attended a particular primary school, known as a feeder school.  The criteria to be applied by schools in such circumstances are a matter for the schools themselves.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 was signed into law by the President on 18 July 2018. The overall objective of the Act is to provide a new framework for school enrolment, designed to ensure that every child is treated fairly and that the way in which schools decide on applications for admission is structured, fair and transparent.

New schools established since 2011 to cater for demographic demand are required to prioritise enrolment of children in the school planning areas for which the Department has identified the need for a school.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am quite disappointed that he has no plans to do that. I have raised this issue with him before. It is an incredibly important and topical issue in my home city of Limerick. The current Limerick area post-primary schools common application system works quite well, as I said to the Minister when we last spoke about this. Some 17 secondary schools and 140 primary schools work together to get the right number of students into each institution. However, it is very distressing for a certain number of pupils who fall through the cracks in the system.

As the Minister is aware, several young students in the city were recently left without a secondary school place despite applying to nine different schools. That left them and their parents in a panicked and worried state. Some kind of safety net must be put in place to ensure that no child receives only rejection letters. It is simply not good enough for parents to be forced to contact their TD or local newspapers in a desperate attempt to get a school place for their child. Although the current system works well for many, I ask the Minister to look into this problem and ensure that no child is left without a place. That is why I specifically mention the issue of feeder schools.

I am aware that the Deputy has raised this issue on several occasions. I am very interested in seeing how this system works. On one hand, it is a very good system whereby up to 98% of students get a place. However, in some instances students do not secure a place, even after going through all their preferences as expressed on the common application system. This is very hard on the student and his or her family and parents. There is probably no foolproof system but the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 very clearly requires equitable and fair treatment. Ultimately, however, the design, structure and construction of any policy is a matter for the schools themselves. While we can call for fairness and equity in the application of these guidelines at the political level, it is ultimately a matter for the schools themselves.

The Minister used the words "equity", "fairness" and "non-discriminatory" in his response.

One of the barriers in the schools admission process is the rule many schools have in place giving preference to a student if his or her parent was a former student. The problem is that people whose parents did not go to the school and live in the area have no chance of going to the school. The rule has a harmful impact and prevents many children from attending their local school because their father or mother did not attend the school. It is clear in many instances in Limerick that it causes class division across the city and leaves many children behind. It results in the exclusion of some families altogether from their local school, despite living next door to it in some cases of which I am aware. I urge the Minister to again consider reforming the system when he examines the schools admission process in the future.

I know it is an important issue that the Deputy has highlighted in Limerick. The model in Limerick is a comprehensive one that not every area has. As he indicated, there are 140 primary schools and 17 secondary schools. A level of organisation is required by principals and boards of management to ensure the system works. The Deputy and his colleagues in Limerick highlighted a difficulty, which Senator Maria Byrne has raised with me on a number of occasions, namely, that there will always be a small percentage of parents and students who feel aggrieved because they are left out. I am happy to work with those involved in the system but the Department cannot be prescriptive in terms of designing the policy for individual schools. We have protective measures enshrined in legislation that promote fairness and equal treatment, but ultimately it is a prerogative of schools to design their own policy.