Northern Ireland

Grammar schools cannot be given 'preferential treatment'

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey has said there should be no preference given to grammar schools. Picture by Hugh Russell
Green Party MLA Clare Bailey has said there should be no preference given to grammar schools. Picture by Hugh Russell

GRAMMAR schools must not be given any "preferential treatment" by being awarded extra places to cope with parental demand, it has been urged.

The online application process for post-primary education closed last night.

With entrance tests cancelled for children due to transfer in September, schools adopted alternative admissions criteria.

There are concerns that popular schools will be even more heavily oversubscribed than in previous years.

Some schools have already been allowed to expand ahead of what is expected to be another bumper transfer year.

There has been a steady rise in the number of children transferring from primary to post primary - more than 10 per cent in three years.

This means hundreds are being left unplaced due to more popular schools being oversubscribed - even though there are typically thousands of empty desks elsewhere.

Every school has a published admissions number - which shows how many pupils it can legally admit in each year group.

The Department of Education has the power to adjust this through a temporary variation.

Its main aim is to ensure every pupil is placed "within reasonable travelling distance of their home address and within the sector the family has chosen".

Factors include a pupil's residence in a particular parish. The fact they are an eldest child or family connections are not normally taken into consideration.

There have been occasions where children who were denied their first choice school were sent regardless, and in uniform.

Principals have previously been warned they will be acting unlawfully by bowing to such parental pressure - and also risk being stripped of funding.

The department will typically reject expansion bids from schools if officials believe that they may have an adverse impact on neighbouring post-primaries, or if there is surplus capacity nearby.

Green Party MLA for south Belfast Clare Bailey has said there should be no preference given to grammar schools over their non-selective neighbours.

In an assembly written question to Education Minister Peter Weir, Ms Bailey noted the absence of academic selection testing, and asked "whether he can provide assurances that grammar schools will not be afforded preferential treatment on temporary variances to intake over non-selective schools".

Responding, Mr Weir said the absence of academic selection from the majority of grammar schools' admissions criteria in 2021 brought additional uncertainties.

"It remains my intention to ensure that parental preference for a school sector can be met as far as possible, while ensuring that individual schools are not unnecessarily disadvantaged," he added.

"Temporary variation policy puts the needs of children before the needs of institutions."