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Didn’t get your first-choice school? Here are your options

This weekend students across Northern Ireland will receive notification of their post-primary school applications. Eversheds Sutherland solicitor, Emily Paisley, explains what you can do if your child has been refused admission to their preferred secondary school, or has been unplaced

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Children will receive notification of their post-primary school applications this Saturday

Children will receive notification of their post-primary school applications this Saturday

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Children will receive notification of their post-primary school applications this Saturday

As pupils look towards the summer holidays and the school year begins to wind down in May, parents of Primary 7 pupils will be eagerly awaiting the letters on Saturday (May 21) which tell them which ‘big schools’ their children will be attending in September. The process has come into sharper focus in recent years, however, especially during the pandemic. 2021 saw a significant increase in the number of school admission appeals appeals brought in Northern Ireland. Then-Education Minister Michelle McIlveen reported that, in June 2021, 280 children in Northern Ireland did not have a secondary school place, having failed to secure a place in any of the schools they had applied for. Minister McIlveen expressed concern at the number of instances in which schools had incorrectly applied their admissions criteria, and over 120 appeals were upheld, resulting in that child obtaining a place in their preferred secondary school. While it is deeply disappointing for both the pupil and their families if a child is refused a place at their school of choice, there are three options available if you are challenging a school’s decision: the School Admissions Appeal Tribunal; the Exceptional Circumstances Body; or a judicial review of the school’s criteria.

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Emma Paisley

Emma Paisley

Emma Paisley

The first option means an appeal can be made to challenge the Board of Governors’ decision not to admit a child to their school. However, the Tribunal’s powers are limited under Article 15 (5) of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. The Tribunal must ask themselves two key questions: 1) Were the school’s admissions criteria applied, or applied correctly; and 2) If they had been applied correctly, would the child have been granted entry into the school?
If the Tribunal holds that the criteria were not applied correctly, and if they had been applied correctly the child would have been granted entry into the school, the school must make a place for that child in the school. However, the Tribunal might find that even if the criteria had been applied correctly, the child would have been refused admission, and if this is the case, the appeal would be dismissed.
The second option, the Exceptional Circumstances Body, is a separate entity whose powers are governed by the School Admissions (Exceptional Circumstances) Regulations (NI) 2010, and who consider applications that a child must attend a particular school.
The ECB applies a three-stage test: Are the circumstances claimed exceptional? Are the circumstances claimed personal to the child? Do the circumstances claimed require the child’s admission to the school, and only that school?
The ECB cannot consider circumstances which relate wholly or mainly to the kind of education provided at that school i.e. grammar versus comprehensive; circumstances related to a child’s academic ability; or circumstances related to the availability of transport to that school.
Finally, you can also launch a judicial review of the school’s criteria. However, this is a much more complex and costly process, and legal advice should be sought as to the merits of any such application.

For more information contact Eversheds Sutherland 028 9526 2000 or email emilypaisley@eversheds-sutherland.ie

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