Effective, meaningful legislation is required

The planned introduction of laws to give force to guidelines for schools on enrolment should be a welcome measure.

In light of the insensitive response of St Joseph’s College in Borrisoleigh, Co Tipperary, to the application of a pregnant teen, and again when she had become a teenage mother, it is important that such situations are far less likely to be repeated.

But the detail of any such law will be vitally important given that there is already 1998 legislation which is supposed to ensure equal treatment for all young people trying to access their right to an education.

Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan’s report on the Tipperary school has renewed a necessary debate about the power of schools to follow their own rules on who they will or will not allow into their classrooms.

But she also points out that if Ruairi Quinn, the education minister, goes ahead with legislation next year to provide a statutory enrolment policy framework, the shape of it needs to be considered carefully. It is well and good to have laws but they need to give the minister and his officials powers they currently do not have to act in cases like this and compel schools to take certain actions.

“That’s part of the public school system that we have, that each school operates as a legally autonomous entity. But the [minister and his department] have a responsibility to provide legislation and it’s my job to try and ensure legislation is as child-centred as possible,” Ms Logan said.

“If it comes to draft legislation, there has to be new standards for admissions and enrolments policies in this country. Primary legislation seems to be more effective than policy guidelines,” Ms Logan told the Irish Examiner.

However, she said any new law should contain a principle that obliges people to consider the best interest of a child when making decisions — something Ms Logan says is not explicit in the 1998 Education Act.

In a radio interview on Monday, Mr Quinn said part of the reason he intends to legislate is because he is concerned that some schools have not fully complied with having to have a proper enrolment policy that is clear for all to see.

However, he also stated that while the intention is to have firm guidelines with the force of law behind them, he would also have to enable schools operate in a framework that reflects their own ethos.

Such a balance may well be important. But not as important as ensuring there is no legal immunity for schools, their boards, or principals that hide behind policies that belong in another century.

What is more welcome is the clarity that Mr Quinn provides about the need for — and the intention to introduce — a new appeal mechanism for parents or young people who remain unsatisfied with a school’s decision not to enrol them.

He correctly stated this week that the present system is cumbersome and legalistic.

This is particularly true for families who just want the best for their children but who have little recourse to the legal expertise often available to schools.

But again, it will be down to Mr Quinn to ensure the proposed legislation ensures that schools face tough sanctions if they do not have a written and publicly available set of unambiguous criteria for admission of students.

Mr Quinn is clearly aware that the difficulty in many cases where problems arise over enrolments is that parents have no written policy to refer to. And often there is no formal written refusal, just reports of a polite but dismissive phone call.

Previous ministers have alluded to such problems but have, unfortunately, not acted.

After details of the case in Tipperary emerged this week, it is to be hoped that Ruairi Quinn will do more and that what he does is meaningful and effective.


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