Emily Paisley: What can NI parents do if their child is refused admission to their preferred school?
Emily Paisley, associate at Eversheds Sutherland in Belfast, explores what Northern Ireland parents can do if their child is refused admission to their preferred secondary school, or has been unplaced.
As pupils look towards the summer holidays and the school year begins to wind down in May, parents of Primary 7 pupils will now be getting them ready for the transition to ‘big school’ in September. However, the admissions process has come into sharper focus in recent years, 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.
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? And
- 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.
- Emily Paisley is an associate in the dispute resolution and litigation team at Eversheds Sutherland in Belfast.