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DOG'S DINNER; Grammar places 'if kids get free meals' But schools insist on own entrance test.

Byline: BY MICHAEL McHUGH

CHILDREN entitled to free school meals will get a place at their school of choice over all other pupils, Education Minister Caitriona Ruane ruled yesterday.

But outlining controversial plans for post-primary education the South Down MLA admitted her plans are only "guidance".

And last night it emerged that almost all grammar schools, both Protestant and Catholic, have drawn up their own entrance criteria and will ignore the minister's advice.

Last night, 69 out of Northern Ireland's 72 grammar schools had announced they were setting their own exams.

Ms Ruane said: "This guidance recommends all schools use as their first criterion a measure that will ensure applicants with Free School Meals Entitlement gain admissions at the same rate as all other applicants.

"For example, if 20 per cent of applications are from FSME applicants, then at least 20 per cent of the school's places should be allocated to FSME candidates.

"This is to address the current situation where FSME children have been disadvantaged in terms of access to grammar school places.

"One in 17 children in academically selective schools were FSME while one in four children in other schools were FSME."

But at least one school head labelled the plan a "blunt instrument" saying many entitled to free school meals do not take them.

Another source told the Daily Mirror: "The other issue is how do you verify it. We'll end up in a situation like the grannying up in Derry when people were using relatives' address to get into the school they wanted."

The Education Minister was accused of ignoring the Executive but she hit back and said they had ignored chances to discuss her plans.

She failed to achieve cross-party agreement on planning for the future of children moving in 2010 and the DUP claimed she ruled out consensus in pressing ahead with her plans.

At least 30 schools intend to set their own entrance test but Ms Ruane issued guidance asking those in charge of admissions to consider where the pupil lives and whether an adequate number of deprived learners attend.

DUP Assembly member Mervyn Storey claimed: "Today marks the public admission of the failure of the Education Minister to gain consensus and regrettably we have in this House today the Education Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive pulling down the shutters on consensus, pulling down the shutters on any way of getting an agreement."

But the Sinn Fein representative blamed ministerial colleagues for refusing to discuss her plans.

Her proposals included phasing out selection over a three-year period, allowing grammars to select half of of pupils in 2010/11, 30 per cent the following year and a fifth in 2012/13.

She told the Assembly: "I will not allow the DUP and the UUP to block the process of necessary and wellmanaged change. I now intend to move forward.

"They support a system designed in the previous century to meet the needs of a previous century.

"Parents, teachers and pupils need clarity. They need certainty."

Schools will be obliged by law to "have regard" for the guidance. It recommends they do not use academic admissions criteria.

Much of the process will be as before, the minister added, and her Department will set admissions and enrolment numbers for each school.

Where schools are over-subscribed, post-primary boards of governors must select children for admission by application of the criteria and decisions will be released in May 2010.

Teaching unions have supported her move to scrap selection.

But Sir Kenneth Bloomfield from the Association for Quality Education, which has led efforts by some grammars to set entrance tests, said the area had been left unregulated.

He added: "The minister is giving us what she describes as guidance but those schools who want to preserve academic selection represented by the AQE have taken heavyweight legal advice in anticipation of this position.

"When a minister gives guidance we will give consideration to that guidance but at the end of the day we are entitled to do what remains lawful."

The minister has said she is under no obligation to fund the rebel schools' assessment.

But Sir Kenneth said their tests would be paid for by parents, with the less well-off having their costs covered.

Ruane's new entrance criteria for post-primary schools

1. Those getting free school meals will gain admission at same rate as all others. If a fifth of applicants get free meals, then they will get a fifth of places

2. If a sibling attends the school

3. If the applicant is the eldest child

4. If it's the nearest school

5. If the child lives within its catchment area

6. If it's the nearest suitable school

7. Random selection will be used as a tie-breaker.

2010 date for new rules

69 out of 72 schools rebel
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2009
Words:801
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