Cardinal signals end of selection for Catholic schools
Catholic schools should consider sharing staff and facilities with other sections of the community, the head of the church in Ireland said today.
New ways of providing education can be achieved without compromising cherished values and the right to schools with a particular ethos, Cardinal Sean Brady added.
He was outlining proposals for a root and branch review of the maintained sector's post-primary education.
The central commitment remains the ending of academic selection, but it also examines other ways of working.
Archbishop Brady said: "We have been and will continue throughout this process to consult beyond the Catholic network of schools and to explore new ways of sharing resources, facilities and personnel at local level to ensure that the best possible education for all children in our society is achieved.
"This marks a very significant development in our approach to the future of Catholic education in Northern Ireland.
"It signals our commitment to consider new ways of building relationships which contribute to good relations based on the Christian virtues of good neighbourliness, mutual respect and reconciliation."
Some grammar schools are unwilling to accept the end of academic selection. A series of independent tests for post-primary transfer have been agreed.
There were around 14,000 applications for pupils to sit the unregulated exams for 68 schools the last time they were held.
The commission on Catholic education has already said the practice should not continue after 2012.
Cardinal Brady added: "The Catholic Trustees are signalling today their willingness to think outside the box on these issues and to engage in wide ranging discussion about how together we can provide the best education for every child in Northern Ireland.
"It is in this spirit, that I also take this opportunity to appeal to our locally elected representatives. I appeal to our politicians to move beyond the narrow focus on academic selection and to engage in a wider, more inclusive discussion about how together we can provide the best possible system of education for every child in Northern Ireland."
The commission is trying to tackle a reduction in the number of pupils, demands for a wider choice of subjects and the hierarchy's wish to end academic selection.
Over the next month, the commission will reveal the options open to clusters of schools in 17 different areas across Northern Ireland.
Some areas will see new colleges for children aged 11 to 14 and 14 to 19 and there will be more amalgamations of groups of two and three schools.
Some single sex schools could become co-educational and others may be federated, two or more schools governed by one body.
The commission wants a network of all-ability schools, removing the need for academic selection.
The review also aims to remove thousands of empty desks from the post-primary maintained sector.
Changes are expected to take place over the next decade. It would see schools run by different Catholic religious orders come together in future mergers or collaborations.
Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson accused the Catholic church of denying young people the opportunity of a grammar school education.
He said an academic option had to remain open but added that he does not believe the future transfer to post-primary education must involve testing.
The First Minister said the 11-plus model was not desirable and replacing it with five independent tests was hardly a success story for Education Minister Caitriona Ruane. Instead he said testing involving computers could be used.
"The Roman Catholic church appears determined to deny young people the opportunity of a grammar school education," he said.
"I know many Roman Catholic parents vehemently oppose this position.
"They too understand the importance of successful academic schools in the development of our society here.
"I am determined to ensure that an academic option is available to those from all backgrounds who wish to pursue this path."