Grammar-school Admissions Criteria

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 6th December 2021.

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Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 6th December 2021

1. Ms S Bradley asked the Minister of Education, further to a recent court ruling that a grammar school's admissions criteria were unlawful, what assessment her Department has made of the action required following the ruling. (AQO 2852/17-22)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

On 24 November 2021, the High Court delivered its judgement in a case where some contents of a post-primary school’s admissions criteria for transfer 2021 were challenged by an applicant. In its judgement, the court found that a criterion prioritising boys whose father/guardian attended the school — I should clarify that it is an all-boys' school — was found to be unlawful in that it represented unjustified indirect discrimination contrary to article 18 of the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.

The drawing up of admissions criteria is a matter for individual boards of governors, and my Department cannot compel schools to use specific criteria. My Department can, however, issue guidance to schools on the post-primary admissions process that schools must, by law, have regard to. In the most recent guidance, which issued in November 2021, my Department specifies the criteria that, it is recommended, schools should and should not use. One type of criterion that, it is recommended, schools should not use is any familial criterion beyond that of a sibling currently attending the school. My Department has now written to all post-primary schools to draw to their attention the court's judgement and to advise that such an admissions criterion or any similar criterion should not be used. Given the timing of the judgement, my Department extended the deadline for submission of admissions criteria by post-primary schools to allow boards of governors to review their draft admissions criteria for transfer 2022 if necessary.

Photo of Sinéad Bradley Sinéad Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

What plans does the Minister have to do an evaluation across the system to be prepared for any disruption that that may cause?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. My Department has written to all the schools that could be affected. I do not anticipate a great deal of disruption, but we have ensured that any lessons learned, particularly in relation to transfer 2021, are reflected in guidance and communication to post-primary schools.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Last year, there were numerous reports of post-primary schools using admissions criteria that ran counter to the guidance from the Department. Despite the distress and upset caused to children and their parents, there is no sanction or repercussion for schools that do not adhere to the guidance. Is it not time for the guidance to be put on a statutory footing so that our schoolchildren are protected and supported?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. With regard to sanctions, my Department has written to schools that had quite a number of appeals upheld. We are evaluating the outcome of that. I expect that action will be taken against boards of governors who continue to go against the guidelines that the Department has issued. The Member will know, however, that the setting of admissions criteria is, by law, a matter for schools' boards of governors, and my Department issues advice. While schools must, by law, have regard to that guidance, the setting of admissions criteria remains a matter for schools.

Uniform admissions criteria would mean that, in many instances, the same children were prioritised by all schools. That would create an additional problem that would have to be reflected.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

It is regrettable that it required legal action for schools to follow Department of Education guidance. What action is the Education Minister taking to implement the 'A Fair Start' expert panel recommendation that the "systemic inequality" of academic selection for admissions be addressed as a priority?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

The Member will be aware that issues relating to schools that use transfer as part of their criteria are very much up to the individual schools.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

We approach the end of the transfer test for September 2022 admission. Given that some children may not have been able to sit one or more of the tests because of COVID, is the Minister in a position to outline what may happen in that situation?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that the tests operated by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) are held on one day and there is a supplementary assessment this Saturday for any child who could not sit the first test. The Association for Quality Education Limited (AQE) tests were held over consecutive Saturdays, and it is therefore possible that a child who tested positive for COVID could have missed more than one test. While neither the entrance tests nor the content of schools' admissions criteria are matters for my Department, guidance has issued to schools highlighting the importance of a special provision route in a school's admissions criteria. A special provision route can cater for applicants who have not been able to sit the tests by providing a means of assessing their applications in line with other applications. In a sense, that is no different from other years when illness may have prevented a child from sitting entrance tests. The approach taken will be determined by each school. Parents in that position can see the approach adopted by their preferred schools when the criteria are published on 12 January 2022.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

What action can you or your Department take in the case of people appointed as board members of voluntary grammars who are found to be acting unlawfully or not adhering to the Teachers’ Negotiating Committee?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. Obviously, there must be something behind that question. I am happy to speak to the Member about that.