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Professor Tony Gallagher, head of the School of Education at Queen’s, answers readers’ queries....

Q: I am on my own with two children and work.

I would like to know why children entitled to school meals have more rights than children whose parents actually go to work and pay taxes than to those who are on the dole? (By DW via Belfast Telegraph website)

A: Children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds do not achieve, on average, the same levels of academic performance in comparison with children from more advantaged backgrounds. Thus, schools with more pupils entitled to free school meals (FSME) receive additional funds to support these pupils.

Social background also has an influence on 11-Plus transfer test performance which is why there are almost five times as many FSME pupils in secondary schools as compared with grammar schools.

The minister wants to reduce this social gap by giving special preference to FSME children: schools are asked to admit the same proportion of FSME pupils as apply to the school. Thus, if 20 per cent of all the pupils who apply to a school are entitled to free school meals, then 20 per cent of entrants should also be entitled to free school meals.

Some will oppose this measure and insist that all pupils should be treated the same, regardless of background. Others will argue that education should try to compensate for the effects of social inequality. Ironically, equality legislation and section 75 requirements do not cover socioeconomic factors. In any case, schools have to give due regard to the minister’s advice, but are not obliged to follow it.

Q: Are there any grammar schools that have given up selection?

(By Mark via Belfast Telegraph website)

A: No grammar school has announced an intention to cease academic selection at 11, although at least one school has indicated that it will select only part of its intake on academic grounds, largely because it has been unable to attract enough applicants with the highest grades.

Currently three other non-grammar schools use this procedure and select about a third of their intake on academic grounds: they do this in order to ensure they have a full all-ability profile to their intake.

The Catholic Bishops have announced an intention that academic selection at 11 in Catholic grammar schools will end and they have asked the schools to develop plans to achieve this goal within two years. However, no schools have, as yet, announced any plans along these lines.

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