A new Department of Education circular giving advice to schools on the new unregulated school transfer system gives unexpected support to principals using entrance tests to determine their intake, it was claimed today.
One grammar school head teacher, who asked not to be named, said he was “shocked” but “over the moon” to see space on the Transfer Form — the official application form for post-primary schools — where the results of entrance tests could be included.
“I expected the Education Minister (Caitriona Ruane) just to remove any reference to entrance assessments on the form,” he said.
“I am over the moon that there are two lines for primary principals to write in what pupils get in their test.
“I thought that primary principals may have had to just staple something on to the form and some could have refused to do that. Or papers may have come off and got lost from the form.
“I am astounded that the minister is providing a means by which entrance test information can be recorded. There is also an invitation to parents to add additional pages.”
However, he said that he was concerned that there was no longer a ‘special circumstances’ section to the form — where information could be given on illness etc which may have affected children’s performance in the tests.
“Education psychologists used to be brought in when children couldn’t sit the tests to assess if they were at the level of an A grade, or B grade etc.
“This would then be used by schools but the minister has removed support for this. Special circumstances is the most concerning thing that schools setting their own tests will have to deal with.”
The head teacher said it was also likely that his school would not include Free School Meals Entitlement (FSME) in its admissions criteria — despite this being recommended by Ms Ruane as the first criterion to be used by all schools.
If 20% of applicants are entitled to FSMs, then 20% of the school's places should be allocated to FSM applicants.
“The education boards have already warned that this will be very hard to verify,” he said.
“The new circular says that post-primary schools must verify that pupils are on the free school meals register.
“A child could be entitled to free school meals in February when the Transfer Forms are completed because their dad is out of work, but this could change a week later.
“Some parents can be prepared to lie about things like this — and also where they live — in order to ensure that their child gets into the school of their choice.
“I think there is a good argument not to use free school meals in our criteria at all. I don’t know how we can verify it. I don’t think many oversubscribed schools will use it — whether they are grammar or not.
“The department’s own equality impact assessment exercise also warned that Protestant families have a lower take-up rate for free meals than Catholics.
“So using this in our criteria could potentially lead to us discriminating against Protestant children.”
The circular states that the FSME criteria is based on whether or not a child is on the free meals register at the date the transfer form is completed.
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is also against including FSME in admissions criteria and has claimed it would be an attempt to “engineer social balance in admissions”.
Schools’ admissions criteria must be finalised by September 21.
Caitriona Ruane said: “This new circular reflects the changes in policy brought about by my department's publication of final Transfer 2010 guidance following a period of consultation.”
To read the circular, go to www.deni.gov.uk and click on Transfer 2010