Belfast Royal Academy changes admissions criteria

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

Published
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image captionBelfast Royal Academy is one of Northern Ireland's largest schools

One of Northern Ireland's biggest grammar schools has changed its admissions criteria to give higher priority to pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM).

Belfast Royal Academy (BRA), which has more than 1,400 pupils, said the change followed "detailed" legal advice.

Children seeking admission still need to have entered the AQE transfer test, which has been cancelled this year.

But priority will then be given to a proportion of children entitled to FSM.

They will be selected from the group who put the school as their first choice in the admissions process.

Under the changed criteria, they will be given priority ahead of children who currently attend BRA's prep school or children with a sibling at the school.

The transfer tests run by the AQE and the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC) were cancelled in early 2021.

As a result, grammar schools - which are attended by about 45% of post-primary pupils in Northern Ireland - have had to draw up new criteria for how they will select pupils in 2021.

The vast majority of grammars are not using any academic data to admit pupils for 2021.

The Irish News had previously reported that BRA was facing a legal challenge to its admissions criteria due to the initial priority it had given to children attending its prep school.

In a letter to parents on Monday, BRA's governors said that "in light of detailed advice received recently from senior counsel" they had amended the school's admissions criteria.

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image captionThe vast majority of grammar schools are not using academic data to select pupils this year

They said BRA was "integrated and inclusive and the envy of almost every other local post-primary school".

"For more than 235 years, Belfast Royal Academy has served as a beacon of hope, tolerance, and mutual understanding," their letter said.

"We are one of the most diverse school communities in Northern Ireland in terms of religion, gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic background.

"For every 10 pupils, four come from the Protestant tradition, three come from the Catholic tradition, and three come from other religious traditions and none.

"One in six of our pupils is entitled to free school meals; and one in 10 of our pupils has special educational needs.

"The record of Belfast Royal Academy in relation to diversity and inclusion is second to none and it would be much better for Northern Ireland as a whole if more schools followed our example."

BRA was one of the first grammar schools to decide not to use the AQE test to admit pupils this year.

However, the governors also told parents that "the school remains of the view that academic selection is the fairest way of allocating places to children who apply to the school".

BRA normally admits 200 pupils into year eight every year but in previous years has had about 300 applications for those places.

Parents can begin applying to post-primary schools which they want their children to attend on 1 March.

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