A LIMERICK school principal has made an impassioned plea for greater transparency and equality in secondary school admissions procedures.
Noel Malone, of Colaiste Chiarain Croom, was speaking to the Oireachtas education committee this Wednesday on forthcoming legislation aimed at curbing the practice of “cherry-picking” that has left schools open to charges of elitism.
A crisis in the number of children in Limerick city - particularly boys from disadvantaged areas - who were offered no place in secondary school resulted in the introduction of a common application system in Limerick by the former Minister for Education Noel Dempsey. That system, of which Colaiste Chiarain is part, has been successful in ensuring every child is offered a place but has not resulted in a social mix in all schools, which the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern called for at the time.
Minister Ruairi Quinn says the purpose of the legislation is to make school admissions policies more straightforward but speaking in Leinster House this week, Mr Malone fears some schools may be given a get-out clause.
Limerick’s experience of a common application system made it the “ideal test case” before signing the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2013 into law, he said.
“I welcome the fact that the bill has included the right of the minister to impose a similar system elsewhere. However, it is with some alarm and regret that we note the Minister’s assertion that; ‘it is not the intention, in such a scenario, that the schools concerned will be required to apply a common policy. Rather that each school will continue to apply its own policy, in that only the process will have to operate in co-operation with other schools’,” Mr Malone said.
He believes admissions policy should be common across all schools with preference given to brothers and sisters of existing students only and places allocated on a geographical basis thereafter.
“Unfortunately, in my experience in Limerick, it is widely perceived that the system as it operates is unfair and discriminatory and the last thing such a system needs is light touch regulation,” Mr Malone declared.
“A key characteristic of schools in Limerick is the lack of social mix. This has negative consequences on those lower down the social hierarchy, and brings additional advantage to pupils in those schools which are almost entirely middle class in their social composition.”
Children in Limerick who were not given a place in their first or second choice schools were often offered their very last preference.
“Ironically, participant schools are given a certain level of protection from any imputation of perpetuating inequality, by using the scheme as a kind of cover.”
The system had done little to prevent schools taking in students from miles away to the detriment of children on their doorstep.
“Some schools apply preferential criteria, such as favouring children living in certain affluent areas, cherry-picked traditional feeder schools, brothers or sisters of past pupils, sons or daughters of past pupils and so on, and finally, of course, ‘all others’. In effect, very few places are left in this last category, as the schools have pretty much wrapped up their preferred clientele, and end up sending refusal letters to so many disappointed 12-year-olds.”
Mr Malone appealed to Minister Quinn to re-examine the idea that quarter of a school’s intake could be the children of past pupils.
“Who will oversee the selection of this 25% and where is the transparency in terms of selection? Surely, this will give licence to some schools to continue to actively favour the socially advantaged, academically gifted, or those who have exceptional sporting prowess. Furthermore, this proposal appears to reward those schools who have adopted such discriminatory practices in the past, by limiting this derogation to those who allowed such a provision in the last five years, effectively penalising those schools which have embraced a much more progressive and open admissions policy.”