Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Schools at centre of election bust-up

Northern Ireland schools have clashed with the elections office in a spat over pupils joining the register to vote.

Seven leading secondary schools — including grammars — were “named and shamed” after being accused of helping prevent young people to get on to the electoral register.

But post-primary heads hit back at Chief Electoral Officer Douglas Bain who calculates more than 1,000 teenagers were affected and remain off the register.

The ‘offending’ schools identified on the elections office website are Aquinas Diocesan Grammar School, Corpus Christi College, Rathmore Grammar, St Joseph’s College, Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Our Lady and St Patrick’s College — all in Belfast — and St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon.

Under new rules, schools are required to supply the names and addresses of all pupils over 16 to the elections office, which also requested permission to visit them during normal school hours to help the teenagers complete application forms.

But seven out of 180 failed to set a date for the visits and Mr Bain went public with the problem. As a result of his Office’s Schools Initiative, which began last year, the number of under 18s on the register has been increased from only 244 in autumn 2007 to the current figure of 12,935.

However, Mr Bain said: “This is not a witch-hunt of schools and I am not ascribing any political motive to this.

“But citizenship is a compulsory module on the curriculum so what could be more important than helping pupils to register so that they can have a say in how they are governed?”

Mr Bain said he then wrote to MPs and MLAs asking them to use their influence, but found some doors were still closed.

RBAI principal Janet Williamson said, however, it was not “particularly constructive” in terms of building up good relationships that Mr Bain had gone public.

“There has to be a bit of flexibility on both sides, but there are no political reasons for this. Teaching and learning and the school schedule have to come first,” she added.

A spokeswoman for St Joseph’s College on the Ravenhill Road said: “We are really shocked. This seems to have been a mistake. We are under the impression we have done everything required, the names have been given and we are waiting to hear back.”

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