Northern Ireland news

Grammar school faces legal challenge over admissions criteria

Belfast Royal Academy in north Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann

A GRAMMAR school is facing a legal challenge over admissions criteria that give priority to children in its fee-paying prep department.

It has been claimed that Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) has ignored guidance relating to recommended methods of selecting pupils.

With grammar entrance tests cancelled this year, schools have devised alternative criteria.

Amid warnings from lawyers, most abandoned efforts to use different forms of academic selection in lieu of transfer tests.

BRA adopted non-selective criteria but is facing a judicial review this week.

It has been taken on behalf of a P7 pupil at Holy Cross Boys' PS in Ardoyne.

The board of governors of BRA, Education Authority and Department of Education have been named as respondents.

BRA is the only co-educational grammar option for children in north Belfast. It has 200 Year 8 places.

For applicants to be in with a chance of being admitted, they must first prove they entered the school's cancelled entrance assessment.

Lawyers have highlighted issues with several subsequent tie-breakers.

It will first award places to those enrolled in its preparatory department - Ben Madigan.

After that it will prioritise pupils whose siblings currently attend BRA; those whose siblings previously attended; children whose parents are past pupils; children of staff members and then pupils attending a feeder primary.

These feeder schools are those that have "sent the most pupils to Belfast Royal Academy over the past seven years". A list is provided in a table in ranking order.

Lawyers argue that the prep department is a private fee-paying school which automatically excludes a large proportion of children from a disadvantaged background.

They add that criteria on children of staff, past pupils and past siblings are all explicitly "not recommended by the Education Authority".

It is further claimed that if feeder schools are going to be used, "to split them in terms of priority is illogical, irrational and implicitly contrary to the Education Authority guidance".

The manner in which that criterion is applied "is discriminatory against those from a Catholic background". St Patrick's PS in the New Lodge area is 500 metres away from BRA. There are 570 pupils and it does not feature as a feeder. Holy Cross Boys is also nearby but it too is not listed.

Ciarán Toner from Finucane Toner law firm said the Department of Education had given clear guidance on the recommended criteria schools should use.

"This has been completely ignored," he said.

"In BRA's entrance criteria the board of governors have disregarded the department's recommended criteria, they have introduced three criteria that the department explicitly state that they should not use and then they guarantee an automatic place to all of the children in their fee paying prep school."

BRA did not respond to requests from The Irish News for a comment.

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