Jack's nine-mile school trek, even though closest is just a mile away
A mother faced with a nine-mile trek to her child's school – despite living just a mile from their nearest primary – has accused the Education Minister of ignoring the plight of hundreds of parents.
Fiona MacBroom set up an online petition last month calling on John O'Dowd to make a child's proximity to their chosen primary school a prominent, statutory requirement for acceptance.
She took the step after her four-year-old son Jack failed to get into the primary just over a mile from their home – and now has to enrol in a school almost five miles away.
If the minister was to take action, the move would mean him personally intervening in schools' admission criteria which is set by schools' boards of governors.
In a reply to Ms MacBroom earlier this week, a spokesman for Mr O'Dowd confirmed the department had no plans to impose an admissions criteria on schools.
However, more than 90 people have backed her call online, just four weeks after she started the petition.
Ms MacBroom claimed the Department of Education was failing to address the problems faced by scores of parents who travel miles every day to bring their child to school.
"I do not think he (the Education Minister) is listening to the people. He does not want to hear people's opinions on the matter," she said.
"He seems to think that there is nothing wrong with the way the current system operates."
Next month Jack will start the new school term at Holywood Primary School, four-and-half miles from their home in Helen's Bay, Co Down.
She was unable to get him enrolled at the local Crawfordsburn Primary because he did not have an older sibling at the school. Her eldest child, Lauren (13), attended a primary school in Belfast, where the family moved from in 2007.
"Jack has lived in Helen's Bay all his life. To bring him to Holywood school, I would have to drive my daughter Lauren to Glenlola School in Bangor, from Helen's Bay, then out to Holywood, and back to Bangor where I work," she added.
"That won't be possible, so Lauren will have to get the train to school from now on.
"It means more time and energy and increased fuel consumption.
"There are parents who do not drive. If they were in my position, that would mean them walking to the train station, getting the train, and then walking to the school – all with a four-year-old child."
A spokesman for the Education Minister pointed to the dilemma schools face over whether to prioritise a child's proximity over family connections.
"Departmental intervention in favour of one criterion over another would not change this outcome," he said.
He also pointed to the possibility of inflating house prices in areas around popular primary schools – a consideration Ms MacBroom described as "irrelevant" for an Education Minister.
She said: "This happens to families year-in, year-out, and it never seems to get solved.
"It's too late for Jack but I am doing this for families that will find themselves in our position.
"Bringing in a policy where distance is a main criterion might not solve the problem of schools being over-subscribed. But it would mean that places are allocated in a fair way, which is not the case now."
Supporters of her online petition, change.org, agree.
Sarah Williamson from Bangor said that while it was too late for her child, "I want change for the children and parents in coming years".
She added: "The system at the moment is completely unfair, complicated and unpredictable."
Maureen Alexander from Lisburn said: "As a grandparent this makes perfect sense. How can parents who work be expected to travel long distances whenever there is a perfectly suitable school on their doorstep?
"It is also very important for children to make friends and grow up as part of a community at their local school, something which the current policy does not help with."
Crawfordsburn Primary School could not be reached for comment.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Q Does the Department of Education decide the admission criteria for primary schools?
A No. Each school's board of governors sets the admission criteria for their school.
Q Does admission criteria vary from school to school?
A Yes, admission criteria varies from one school to another.
Q Is there any one factor which will usually count in a child's favour?
A Yes. If a child has an older sibling at their first preference school, this will generally count in their favour as a significant consideration.