Too many children face a chaotic lottery to get a secondary school place. Here’s how we can change it

A common application process would simplify post-primary school admissions, alleviating stress for parents, students and schools

Although before my time, Donagh O’Malley’s bold and visionary move to introduce free secondary education in Ireland now stands as one of those moments, in the first century of the State, when our collective aspiration for a better future for our children trumped budgets and bureaucracy.

Where now stands our collective aspiration? I ask that as a member of the Oireachtas, whose inbox, clinics and social media have been inundated with stories of stress and struggle from parents. Parents who had hoped – no, expected – to get their children into their local secondary school have instead faced both a shortage of places and a disjointed, chaotic lottery of an application and enrolment system.

We know there can’t be a secondary school on every street or in every estate of every village. But something is wrong if we deliberately plan and build new developments, suburbs and towns, but children living in these areas cannot be guaranteed a local school place.

Adding to the uncertainty, our current schools’ admissions process is causing havoc for families in densely populated areas across the country, such as Blanchardstown, Castleknock and elsewhere, where several post-primary schools are oversubscribed.

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To live up to the resolve to cherish all children equally, firstly we need to invest in adding more second-level school places in areas of high demand and, secondly, much less discussed, we need to actively lead reform of the second-level application system.

It can come as an awful shock to parents who live across the road from the local school, where they might have gone themselves, to find out their child didn’t secure a place. Then there are parents who applied to three different schools in their catchment area and weren’t offered any places for months. There are families that moved house to an area that prioritises feeder schools over catchment areas in their admissions policy – now they can’t get a place in the same secondary school as the rest of their friends and they’re struggling to secure a place in the new area too. And what about the children currently waiting on special class places for September 2024?

All of these are examples of real scenarios I have encountered as a public representative in the last six months. They are all similar to cases I’ve been involved in over the last five years. But there is another way.

Tried and tested in clusters of north Dublin and Limerick, schools have come together to create a common application process for post-primary schools – a streamlined procedure designed by the schools themselves, with a common application form and singular deadline, allowing families to apply to multiple schools in their area, but also giving parents the opportunity to list their preferences.

A common application process can simplify post-primary school admissions, alleviating stress for parents, students and schools caused by prolonged uncertainty each year,

Each school retains its own admissions policy while integrating the common applications approach, making sure the students who want places in particular schools are prioritised. The schools manage it together through a central committee and the entire process is accelerated.

A common application process can simplify post-primary school admissions, alleviating stress for parents, students and schools caused by prolonged uncertainty each year, and provide much-needed clarity to the Department of Education on overall shortages of places.

It would reduce the level of intervention required by the Department of Education at the eleventh hour.

A committee structure gives primary and secondary schools the opportunity to collaborate on special classes and places that are needed for students with additional needs in the transition to secondary school.

And the whole system is more manageable for families whose first language isn’t English, negotiating different school admissions policies, catchment areas and parish boundaries.

Common applications won’t solve everything, in particular for students applying to extremely popular schools. There is of course no substitute for the Department of Education staying on top of demand for places in school areas. But according to principals and parents who have direct experience, they see it as a significant improvement.

The Department of Education acknowledges the benefits and legislative readiness that would support such an approach but traditionally the department has been hands-off in the management of admissions, as long as school policies are non-discriminatory, transparent and applied fairly. But I say there’s nothing fair or equitable about a process that begins in October every year and stretches to the following August, with some parents scrambling for secondary school places at their wit’s end while their child’s peers sit entrance exams and buy school uniforms.

The department agrees “good co-ordination between schools can help ensure enrolment is managed and worked through at the earliest possible stage of the annual process”. The sharing of information between schools is allowed for the admission of students. Existing legislation even permits the Minister to direct boards of schools to co-operate with each other in relation to admissions processes.

But ultimately, it has decided that it’s up to schools locally to implement an integrated approach. Despite having all the facts, knowing the problems faced by families, schools, and the department itself, there is little eagerness to try something new.

It’s time for the Department of Education to stop passing the buck to schools and instead work with them to design an efficient and equitable enrolment process for all.

We need common sense solutions – like the common applications process – to address the annual chaos of post-primary school admissions.

It’s time, once again, to gather our collective aspirations for a better Ireland for our children, and break through the barriers of budget and bureaucracy.

Emer Currie is a Fine Gael senator for Dublin West

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