Education news

Parents `need to read closely' school admission criteria

In the secondary sector, 226 pupils were unplaced in a school

WHEN school places were awarded in the summer, hundreds of families were left disappointed. Here, a member of the Independent Appeals Tribunals, who asked to remain anonymous, explains the complexities of the system, and why parents should read criteria carefully before applying for places.

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THE new academic school year has just started and may I wish every success and happiness to all new nursery, primary and secondary school pupils. Not all pupils and their parents were happy last May.

In the secondary sector, 226 pupils were unplaced in a school. This figure dropped to 24 at the end of August. The Education Authority, (EA), statistics state that 86 per cent of secondary age pupils were accepted in their first choice schools. These figures do not highlight the trauma and trouble that many of the unsuccessful 14 per cent encountered. The procedure is set to begin soon for Primary 7 children with secondary schools publishing their admissions criteria by the end of October and transfer forms filled in at the start of February 2020.

As an ex-principal of a massively over-subscribed second level school, I was able to hear the personal stories of pupils and parents as I sat, this summer, on a number of Independent Appeal Tribunals. Many were heart breaking like a twin who did not get accepted to the same secondary school as their sibling.

The most striking learning point for me was that parents need to read closely the admission criteria for the second level school that they wish their child to attend. This might seem flippant but the number of parents that assumed their child would transfer to their preferred secondary school, because children in previous years had done so, was significant. I was reminded of a speed cop's presentation to sixth form students when he said that you shouldn't just focus on the car in front of you but ones two or three places ahead.

So it is with schools, if you are keen on your child attending a secondary school you will need to look at whether the primary school they attend is a relevant feeder school. We are not yet in the scenario of London where it has been reported parents buy houses in postcodes that fit a secondary school's admissions criteria. However, I have heard of parents moving their child, at the start of P7, to primary schools that are direct feeder schools to a coveted secondary school.

Some of the appeals were for children whose first choice was a grammar school and their second choice was an oversubscribed secondary school with the first criteria being first preference thus invalidating the choice. Whatever one's thoughts on admission to grammar schools, they cannot apply a first choice preference as the grade a child receives in the transfer assessment trumps all criteria.

At the appeals tribunals, lawyers and barristers are not uncommon in advocating for a child's access to their preferred school. Their contributions are interesting but unless they can demonstrate that a school did not apply its criteria and/or applied them incorrectly, the Independent Appeals Tribunals cannot rule for them.

There are loopholes; I recall a case where a Catholic school stated that applicants would merit preference if they lived in a named parish. One appellant was able to argue successfully that the school's criteria did not state Catholic or Church of Ireland parishes, the latter that the child resided in.

In a personal capacity I was told by two parents of transferring children that they were advised that their children would not gain access to their local grammar school, by their primary principal, unless they attained an A in the transfer assessment. They did not apply and were annoyed to see that the school was accepting B2 grades that would have seen their children admitted.

If I could give any advice to parents of children transferring in the next few years; continually check the second level school's admission criteria, they can change yearly. Apply the criteria to your child's personal circumstances, seek advice from your primary principal and if necessary the second level school principal. Ask questions and make sure you understand all a school's criteria and how they are applied. As a school principal I always thanked parents of new pupils for entrusting the school with the gift of their child. Your child is precious and deserving of your best efforts.

Regarding the issue of the twin who was not accepted to the same secondary as their sibling, I'm pleased to report that due to a colleague's eagle eyed scrutiny of the school's criteria and a mistakenly recorded date that the school was compelled to accept the child.

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