Parents have warned that thousands of pupils in Irish border communities could face disrupted journeys to school if a hard border is implemented post-Brexit.
While many students attend schools on the opposite side of the border through schemes approved by authorities, countless others are believed to use a practice commonly referred to as “grannying”, to attend school in Northern Ireland.
Parents living close to the border are braced for the re-emergence of “unapproved roads” like those used during the Troubles, to take their children to school.
While the UK and Irish governments have maintained that the free movement of people between the two jurisdictions will not be affected, queues of traffic affecting thousands of people are anticipated if customs checks are reintroduced on the border after March 29.
A reciprocal agreement exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland whereby children living on one side of the border are able to access an education on the other side of the border.
The caveat is that schools in Northern Ireland may only consider a child who is resident in the Republic of Ireland for admission after all resident children who have applied to the school have been considered.
A practice known as “grannying” involves residents who move to the Republic presenting schools in Northern Ireland with proof of address at a grandmother or relative’s house to avoid being left out.
One Londonderry mother, who admits to using the unauthorised practice, has expressed concern.
The woman, who has lived in Donegal for more than 16 years and has two children attending school in Northern Ireland, said the idea of sending her children to school in the Republic of Ireland never crossed her mind.
“I’m from Derry originally, I work and pay tax in Derry, it made sense for the children to go to school there,” she said.
“If there was an emergency, or they were sick and had to leave school immediately, it’s not practical for them to be in Donegal and I’m driving to work in the morning anyway so it makes sense with the school run.”
The Troubles saw many smaller cross-border roads become unauthorised border crossings known officially as “unapproved roads”, which local people used to avoid customs officials and security services.
“In my village alone, a tiny village, there’s four back roads into Derry city,” the mother of two added.
“I could confidently say 90% of my neighbours in this housing estate are from Derry city originally and still working there, or have children attend school there.
“There’s no way they would have the manpower to guard the border and stop every car, and there’s no way people will wait in queues of traffic in the morning, they’ll find another way to get there, they’ll take back roads or roads that can’t be manned.”
Marguerite Hamilton, a former principal of Thornhill College, a girls’ grammar school in the Culmore area of Derry, one mile from the Derry/Donegal border, said it is “inconceivable” that children could be prevented or delayed from going to school if customs posts were installed.
Ms Hamilton said schools across Northern Ireland are aware of “grannying” students living over the border.
“When a child applies for school, we ask for a verifiable proof of address, a bank statement or letter from a doctor for example, if they can supply the proof, it is not the school’s place to go around investigating if the child actually resides there or not,” she said.
“Also, if circumstances change for instance, if they start school living in Derry, and move even just one mile away to the south, should they be forced to leave the school and educational system they know?
“What’s clear is that those arguing about the border in London will not have their lives affected by the consequences.”
Statistics on how often the practice is used are unverifiable, but Ms Hamilton estimates that there are hundreds of children attending school in Northern Ireland who reside in the Republic.
The Department of Education and Skills in the Republic of Ireland said it is confident the Common Travel Area will facilitate existing arrangements for cross-border pupils.
Minister for education Joe McHugh said: “The school communities along the border, both in the north and in the south, have done tremendous work over the last 20 years in cementing the peace process and they deserve enormous credit for that.
“I’ve talked about this issue in recent days with the heads of the department and the need to better understand the important role that these schools, their staff, pupils and parents have played in that and will continue to play.”
Likewise, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland said it is aware of the issue, but has faith that the Common Travel Area between the two jurisdictions will safeguard access to education.
“The issue of the provision of false information on an application is not limited to the home address of a pupil and the department has provided guidance to schools on their duty to verify application information,” a spokeswoman said.
“A parent providing information that is found to be false may have the offer of a place for their child withdrawn.
“In relation to the impact of Brexit, the British and Irish governments have agreed that the rights flowing from the Common Travel Area should be maintained.
“The Common Travel Area provides citizens of the UK and Republic of Ireland with the right to access services, including education, in the other jurisdiction.”