Northern Ireland news

One in three Northern Ireland primary schools facing costly legal challenges over admissions criteria

Online applications for Primary One places opened earlier this month and will close on January 30

ONE in three primary schools are in danger of costly court challenges from disappointed parents after including potentially "legally indefensible" admissions criteria - despite clear warnings.

Two years after a judge banned a school from giving preferential treatment to the children of school staff and its governors, hundreds of schools are continuing to include it and other unreliable selection criteria to award places.

An Irish News investigation has identified more than 260 of Northern Ireland's 801 primary schools could potentially be found to be discriminating against pupils who have a legal right to P1 places in September 2020.

Online applications for Primary One places opened earlier this month and will close on January 30.

The Department of Education first warned schools in 2019 that schools may have to pay out of its own pocket for any court cases taken by disgruntled parents.

It followed a 2018 judicial review of an unnamed primary school's admissions criteria which challenged its decision to favour children whose family members had attended the school in the past or were "employees/governors of the school".

Read More: Apply online for a pre-school or primary school place

In a circular from the department, principals and governors were advised: "The matter was eventually resolved when the school received legal advice that the use of particular admissions criteria which departed from DE guidance may be difficult to defend successfully."

It further revealed that, although the case did not proceed to a full court case, "the judge did agree to quash the specific criteria".

The department warned "Boards of Governors should carefully consider the content of their admissions criteria", adding "if a school fails to follow guidance and does not have sufficient reason for doing so the school may not be indemnified by the Education Authority if legal proceedings are initiated against the school".

The cost of even an `unsuccessful' judicial review application - where the judge decides the matter on the papers without hearing oral arguments - is around £1,000.

If the application is refused after an oral hearing the cost rises to £3,500 and a full judicial review has a five-figure price tag something Northern Ireland schools - 562 now operating under a deficit - can ill afford.

Headteachers can also look forward to an administrative headache if parents of rejected pupils choose to go through school's internal appeal process over successful candidates selected using the flawed criteria.

An updated circular published at the end of 2019 repeated the advice.

The only criteria which schools should be taking into account are:

* Applicants who have a sibling currently attending the school

* Applicants residing in a named parish (with nearest suitable school)

* Applicants residing in a geographically defined area (with nearest suitable school)

* Applicants who are a Looked After Child (LAC)

* Applicants for whom the school is the nearest suitable school

* A tie breaker to distinguish applicants to the last available place

The department pointed out it "no longer specifically recommends the use of an eldest child" as criteria and boards of governors that wish to use it "are advised to consider carefully how it is constructed".

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