Minister for Education Ruari Quinn’s announcement this week that he plans significant changes to current policies on schools admissions has received a mixed welcome in Limerick. That is not surprising, for among the issues that will never find universal acceptance locally, this one must be close to top of the list.
Around a decade ago, this newspaper carried stories on a regular basis highlighting the plight of families left out of the system, without a school place for different reasons – some of them absolutely unacceptable. The common application system introduced by former education minister Noel Dempsey took some time to bed down, but the situation has improved a lot in the intervening years.
That said, it remains a long way from being perfect and the minister is likely to find that gaining widespread acceptance for whatever measures he eventually introduces will be close to impossible.
Among the changes Mr Quinn is planning, for example, is the abolition of waiting lists and booking deposits. On the surface, that might appear entirely reasonable – a measure designed to promote inclusivity and target elitism. Yet there is a practical aspect to the booking deposit that some schools rely on.
For principals trying to get a clear understanding of the latest intake, a modest booking deposit can help. Some parents, in seeking to keep their options open, contact a number of local schools and indicate they wish to send their children to all of them. That can play havoc with a school’s preparations and it is not unknown for a school to lose a teacher because the expected number of enrolments does not materialise.
There has been disquiet locally over some pupils living in relatively close proximity to certain city schools failing to be offered a place, while youngsters living deep in the county found favour. This has been branded “educational apartheid”.
League tables published in national newspapers – which are closely scrutunised by parents – have added to the already considerable pressures on principals. Will they be up or down in the latest table? Will their school be listed at all?
Then there is the increasingly influential battleground of sport. It cannot be denied that the huge importance placed by local schools in sporting achievements – particularly the exploits of their rugby and GAA teams – has seen a degree of ‘cherry-picking’ going on. On the one hand, it is not hard to understand the eagerness of schools to bring pride to pupils and parents – both past, present and future – by competing at a high level and ideally capturing the silverware that can be proudly displayed in cabinets. But on the other, this determination to succeed on the sporting field can result in students being offered a place because of their athletic excellence, at the expense of a child less gifted on the field but with arguably stronger credentials for entry – not least children with learning difficulties.
Mr Quinn is of course entirely correct when he says the system does not work for everybody. He should be commended for seeking to improve it, and in particular for making it clear that he will listen to what he described as “any reasonable suggestions”.
It would be surprising if several good suggestions did not emerge from Limerick. We will be watching this important issue with interest over the coming months.