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Pupils on the border face losing out on school places

Hundreds of children living in Northern Ireland’s border areas could miss out on their first choice of school if a controversial proposal from the Education Minister goes ahead.

John O’Dowd has stepped up a review of legislation that currently ensures schools here must give priority to Northern Ireland pupils when allocating places.

At present, children resident in the Republic are considered to be outside the jurisdiction and will automatically go to the bottom of a school’s consideration list when applying its admissions criteria. However, if a school is undersubscribed it can enrol pupils from across the border.

But the Sinn Fein minister wants children in the Republic to be given the same rights to free nursery, primary and post primary provision here.

“The Department of Education is exploring whether existing legislation, which requires Northern schools to give admissions priority to northern applicants, is compatible with EU legislation,” said a department spokesman.

“The aim of the review is the legislative change to achieve a more flexible position on cross-border school admissions so it will conclude on this basis.”

If that legislation was amended it could open the floodgates for parents, particularly in the border counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth, to send their children to schools in areas like Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry.

Such schools, although outside their jurisdiction, may be the closest to their homes in the Republic or may prove more attractive if there is stiff competition for places at schools in their own area. Many commuters could also opt to send their children to schools closer to their place of work.

However, Mervyn Storey, chairman of the education committee, has hit out at the minister for playing party politics at a time when many schools are in financial crisis because of the biggest cuts in decades.

The DUP MLA said: “We have more pressing and important issues to be dealing with rather than wasting time on a political agenda. There’s valuable money and resources being wasted that should be directed into frontline services in schools.”

Mr Storey also pointed out that any change to the legislation would need cross-party support. “We will not be agreeing to this,” he added.

Background

According to the Department of Education, giving priority school places to Northern Ireland based children is in breach of Articles 6, 18 and 165 of the treaty on the Functions of the European Union. Latest figures show that 259 Republic-based pupils travelled to schools here last year while 105 pupils from here attended schools in the Republic.

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