Girls lose High Court challenge to Co Fermanagh High School admissions policy after Covid-19 saw transfer tests canceled

Two girls who missed out on places at a grammar school in Co Fermanagh after transfer tests were canceled due to Covid-19 have lost a High Court challenge to its admissions policy.

the judge rejected claims that the criteria used by Mount Lourdes in Enniskillen, which involved taking dates of birth into account, were irrational.

Although he did not identify any illegality, Judge Scoffield acknowledged that the two girls would likely have been granted places if the normal admissions process had been going on.

He said: “Unfortunately, (they) are among the many young victims of the circumstances of the pandemic.”

Judicial review proceedings have been initiated against the school board following their failure to gain admission for the 2021/22 school year.

With transfer tests halted at the time, parents applied on behalf of their children under changed admissions criteria.

A total of 126 applications were submitted for 96 places at the school.

Priority was given to those with another daughter in the family who was currently enrolled, then these were the first in their family to move on to secondary education.

Another criterion involved admitting the oldest students to the remaining places in the oversubscribed school first in an age-based tiebreaker.

Both girls in the lawsuit were said to be devastated to have missed something.

One was described as being at the top of the class in primary school, where the headmaster predicted she would have gotten the mark needed to enter Mount Lourdes.

The principal of the other child’s primary school also shared how she was made head girl and was able to achieve high standards in her future college career.

Their parents’ lawyers argued that the school’s admission criteria were illegal, irrational and discriminatory.

But Judge Scoffield found he properly engaged with the Department for Education’s advice and acted validly in highly unusual circumstances where academically selective schools were denied normal transfer testing procedures.

Allegations that the age-based criterion unlawfully discriminates against girls were also dismissed.

“Clearly, all admissions criteria are designed to be discriminatory in some sense, as their purpose is to differentiate between applicants for clearance,” the judge said.

Citing delays in the review of the case, he confirmed that leave to seek judicial review was denied.

However, grievances about the “feeling of exclusion and injustice” at not entering the school were acknowledged.

“These feelings were heightened by the fact that the two girls were not given the opportunity to secure a place on their own merit in the usual way and had their friends admitted on what seemed to them arbitrary grounds,” added Judge Scoffield.

“A certain degree of grief will always lead to circumstances where children compete for limited places in popular schools which are oversubscribed.

“It seems indisputable that this grief, for some at least, has been amplified in the transfer proceedings which this proceeding is about given the upheaval of the usual process caused by the pandemic, which has upended many plans and expectations.”

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