01/02/2008 :: Northern Ireland :: The Irish News
Top schools may face a limit on the number of poor children they can admit to prevent a 'postcode lottery' when the 11-plus goes.
Critics of education minister Caitriona Ruane's decision to scrap the transfer test say she will create a situation where children win places at the school closest to their home.
They argue that places at academically biased schools will be swallowed up by children fortunate to live in the locality.
Yesterday Ms Ruane told a tense meeting of the Stormont education committee that "clearly defined admissions criteria" will be used when schools are over-subscribed.
She also suggested the introduction of free school meals (FSM) quotas. Any such move, however, is likely to anger inner city grammars in both Derry and Belfast, where often one in every five children are eligible to receive FSM.
Free lunches are usually provided to children whose parents receive benefits or whose family income is less than £15,000.
FSM entitlement is the most common measure of social disadvantage in schools.
Under the present system children are awarded grammar places based on 11-plus performance and irrespective of where they live.
Pupils travel to Methodist College Belfast from as far away as Ballynahinch and Bangor.
After the transfer test is scrapped, however, it is envisaged that children will attend their nearest school.
This could mean more children from the loyalist Sandy Row, an area of high social deprivation, choosing nearby 'Methody'.
Only about one per cent of that school's population receive free meals at present but this will rise considerably unless FSM places are capped.
It is still unclear at what level the quota will be set but any limit could adversely affect the intake of inner-city grammars that admit high numbers of children from poorer backgrounds.
If, however, quotas mean schools with traditionally low FSM intake have to admit more disadvantaged pupils there would be concerns about academically able children being displaced.
"Whatever the permitted criteria will be there will always be a need for them to be intelligently and carefully regulated and monitored," Ms Ruane said.
Observers, meanwhile, have said the relationship between the minister and the education committee appeared to have broken down completely.
Chairman Sammy Wilson last night said his committee colleagues were unhappy with Ms Ruane's performance.
"The education minister has said on many occasions that she wishes to build a consensus but it seems to me that what she really means is that everyone must agree with and conform to her way of thinking," he said.