His proposals to impose Government rules on schools around admissions for the first time have been largely welcomed. They will require schools to operate fair and transparent enrolment policies, doing away with first-come, first-served waiting lists or fees to apply for places.
It is also planned to replace the current appeal system with local resolution methods in cases where a child is refused enrolment by a school.
These issues will mostly impact the fifth of schools where there are more applicants than available places each year.
They will still be allowed give priority to siblings of pupils or past pupils, but schools will have to get ministerial permission to continue reserving places for children of past-pupils.
The draft regulations and the outline of legislation to underpin them will go before the Oireachtas Education Committee in the coming months and it is unlikely that they will have effect for admissions before classes enrolling in Sept 2015.
Schools groups had already given their views on any changes two years ago and responded positively to most aspects of the draft regulations.
However, the proposal that the National Council for Special Education may decide which school should admit a pupil with special educational needs has raised some concerns.
“We wouldn’t advocate any school being involved in any form of cherry-picking,” said Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents half the country’s 730 second-level schools.
“But it has to be clear to schools that if they are to provide an appropriate education, they will be given the appropriate resources.”
Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary Sheila Nunan said it is not good enough for a State agency to insist that a school enrol a child without the State providing the required resources.
The department said that, in making a designation, the NCSE shall have regard to the educational needs of the child concerned, the wishes of the child’s parents and the capacity of the school to accommodate the child and to meet his or her educational needs.
This would include that capacity when the school has such additional resources made available as the NCSE recommends, in accordance with the normal arrangements for resource allocation.
Ms Nunan said the legislation does not address the issue of parents making multiple applications and then accepting places in several schools.
“In some cases, this is compounded by schools not being told that a place is not being accepted, decisions that can affect the staffing and funding of schools,” she said.
The legal changes would give the minister for education power to order schools in an area to operate a common admissions system. Although it might deal with such concerns, the main aim is to ensure children are not left without a place at any school.
The National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, a second-level organisation, said the proposals would add clarity and transparency, giving parents, pupils and principals more certainty.
“School leaders have, for some time, made the case that the lack of structure surrounding the enrolment process was resulting in difficulties,” said NAPD director Clive Byrne.
Primary school class sizes rose last year, but there was no increase in pupil-teacher ratios.
Department of Education statistics for the 2012/2013 school year show the average number of pupils in mainstream classes was 24.7, up from 24.4 the previous year.
The increase arose even though there was no change to the method of allocating teachers to the country’s 3,152 mainstream schools, which get one classroom teacher for every 28 pupils.
The mainstream ratio was increased from 27:1 in 2009, but department plans to increase it further were rejected by senior Government ministers in 2011.
However, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn may be forced to push it up further in a year’s time in next month’s budget, as he tries to find savings of between €44m and €100m at the same time that pupil numbers continue to rise.
“These figures show that, without even changing staffing levels, class sizes that are already the second-biggest in the EU are continuing to rise,” said an Irish National Teachers’ Organisation spokesperson.
“Schools are stretching themselves each year to accommodate more pupils, but without having enough of an increase in enrolments to be given an extra teacher.”
Another factor in the rise could be the impact of ongoing changes to staffing levels on some smaller schools, although they still have more favourable pupil-teacher ratios to reflect staff working with multi-class groups.
The official statistics show the number of children attending mainstream primary schools rose 2% from 509,038 to 518,757, and special school enrolments increased by 245 to 7,665. There was a 1% rise in second-level enrolments to 362,847 but that figure includes 35,500 enrolled on post-Leaving Certificate courses, 1,000 fewer than a year ago.