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Grammar schools face axe

By Lindsay Fergus

Grammar schools have been dealt a hammer blow following the publication of radical plans which will see a number of post-primaries close or merge.

Under the five education boards’ proposals several of our 68 grammars could be merged with non-selective secondary schools.

In Northern Ireland there are currently 85,000 school places which are unfilled.

But yesterday’s proposals — ordered in September by the Education Minister — have also been described as a missed opportunity to educate more Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren together.

The major review of the education system has also been slammed as being “shambolic” and “vague” with huge inconsistencies in format and detail between the five boards.

The timing of their release has also come in for criticism at a time when all the schools are closed and many parents are on holiday. SDLP education spokesman Seán Rogers said: “I am deeply concerned that this consultation only runs between now and October, taking in a long period when schools are closed for the summer.”

While the North Eastern Education and Library Board and Southern Education and Library Board have more detailed plans, the South Eastern Education and Library Board and Belfast Education and Library Board have little or no detail for parents.

Grammar schools mooted for amalgamation include Royal School Armagh, Rainey Endowed Magherafelt, Cambridge College Ballymena, Coleraine Academical Institution, Larne Grammar, St Louis’ Ballymena and St Michael’s Lurgan.

It is not yet known what impact it would have on the schools’ grammar status or their use of academic selection.

However, the Catholic sector has published plans to phase out academic selection with a view to all its grammar schools admitting no more than 75% of pupils via testing by September 2014.

Independent MLA David McNarry said: “Minister O’Dowd is proposing a new system which is almost as confused and mixed as the existing system.

“The lack of consistency across the five boards is alarming. It leaves people in Belfast and the South Eastern boards not really knowing what is going to happen.

“It could also be construed as being an attack on Protestant grammar schools.”

In the case of Royal School Armagh, one SELB proposal includes merging it with City of Armagh High and Markethill High to form an all-ability school catering for 1,400 pupils.

One idea put forward by NEELB is for Rainey Endowed and Sperrin Integrated College to come together to form a bilateral school — admitting some pupils by academic selection and others using other criteria — catering for 1,600 pupils in a new school.

There are plans — both in the NEELB — for just two Protestant and two Catholic schools to come together under a shared management.

They include Cross and Passion College and Ballycastle High School becoming a jointly managed 11-19 co-educational school and the shared management of an 11-19 co-educational school incorporating Ballymoney High School and Our Lady of Lourdes High School.

The Alliance Party’s education spokesman Trevor Lunn MLA said that the proposals missed the opportunity for more Catholic and Protestant children to be educated together.

Northern Ireland's education system has been traditionally divided into state schools and a separate sector controlled by the Catholic Church.

Mr Lunn said: “If we want this whole process to achieve the best results then there needs to be a suitable level of co-operation between the education boards and CCMS about the changes that could happen.

“Currently we have two separate processes going on which is not going to make our school |system more sustainable in the long run.”

Several integrated schools could also be merged with controlled secondary schools, which are mainly attended by pupils from a Protestant background and one Catholic maintained school.

However, if the proposals are endorsed it would be up to the school’s managing authority to decide if the schools continue to be classified as integrated.

Integrated schools that could be merged include Sperrin, North Coast, Ulidia College, Devinish College and Crumlin College.

Tina Merron, Integrated Education Fund chief executive, said: “We cannot comment on individual proposals at this stage, but there are some interesting suggestions from the boards.

“However, overall the process has missed the opportunity to deal with segregation, throwing up options for rationalisation on a sectoral basis.”

The threat of closure also hangs over several schools including St

Mary’s High School, Brollagh; Ballee Community High, Orangefield High, Lisnaskea High, St Columban’s Kilkeel while rationalisation has been hinted at for Nendrum College Comber and Movilla High in Newtownards as well as Blackwater Integrated College, Downpatrick and Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle.

Parents will also see a common theme of much larger schools — several in excess of 2,000 pupils.

Chair of the Assembly’s education committee Mervyn Storey said: “It is the outcomes for pupils attending the schools which should be at the centre of all plans for our education system but some of the proposals put forward today will actually damage educational provision rather than enhance it.”

Education Minister, John O’Dowd, commented: “It marks the first step in transforming education provision here. By restructuring our service, we can develop a network of strong schools, able to meet the needs of pupils in the 21st century.”

What next?

The area plans have been published on the websites of the five education boards. Schools, parents, pupils, politicians and stakeholders have until October 26 to comment on the draft plans. Following the conclusion of the public consultation the boards — in conjunction with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools — will update the plans before submitting a final draft to the Department of Education. Education Minister John O’Dowd aims to be in a position to announce the way forward by the year’s end. Implementation of the changes to the current system will depend on the extent of the changes being proposed. However, some could take effect as early as 2013.

Case study

The Royal School Armagh is one of the few grammar schools in Northern Ireland that still has a preparatory department and continues to cater for boarders from here, the Republic and internationally.

Founded in 1608 by James I, the school caters for all faiths, but it mainly attracts pupils from a Protestant background. It is the only grammar school catering for Protestants in Armagh.

Famous past pupils include Ireland rugby star Tommy Bowe (below), statesman Lord Castlereagh and UUP politicians Lord Kilcooney and Sir Reg Empey.

The co-educational school, which has 707 pupils, is situated on a 270-acre site in Armagh city. But the leading grammar school could become an all-ability school if draft proposals to merge it with City of Armagh High and Markethill High are rubber-stamped.

Remaining a grammar school would be a decision for the school’s managing authority, according to the Department of Education.

It would be unlikely to remain a school that admits solely on the basis of academic selection if it merged with non-selective schools.

Other mergers between grammar schools and controlled secondaries have led to a percentage of children being admitted by academic selection and a portion using other criteria. Other all ability schools use just 35% academic selection to determine intake, and some do not use academic selection at all.

However, to add to the confusion for parents, there are several other options Royal School Armagh could consider — including the status quo, or merging it with City of Armagh High School and not increasing capacity.

On that last proposal, the area plans shed no light on whether the mix would lean more towards pupils who are admitted by academic selection or non-selection.

But it would mean less space for Protestant pupils in Armagh.

Wildly varying plans that will only serve to baffle parents

The long-awaited area plans for the future of post-primary provision in Northern Ireland leave more questions than answers.

To get a province-wide picture you would have to read more than 450 pages on the five education boards’ websites.

All that will do is lead you to ask: “How on Earth were they working from the same terms of reference provided by Education Minister John O’Dowd last year?”

Some of the proposals provided by the North Eastern board and the Southern board may not make for enjoyable reading for schools, parents and pupils — but at least they provide a picture of those boards’ vision for their areas.

They give detailed plans — or as detailed as plans can be when working with a segregated system in terms of academic ability, religion and class — allowing members of the public to have their say.

But schools, parents and pupils in the Belfast Education and Library Board and South Eastern board areas will wake up today none the wiser. The plans by those two boards are vague, providing little — if any —information.

Were it not for the already-published Post-Primary Review by the Catholic sector, the plans would be non-existent.

It all leaves parents in those areas wondering what the future holds for their children.

It is unfair that parents in one area are being provided with options, hints of schools that may not survive and the ability to plan for their children’s education, while other mothers and fathers are left in the dark — perhaps unknowingly sending their child to a school destined for closure.

The Education Minister should never have allowed the boards to publish such uninformative material. They should have been sent back to the drawing board — which Mr O’Dowd had done once already — even if it meant delaying the obviously rushed plans until the autumn.

Questions also need to be asked about the Department of Education’s timing on the publication of the area plans when all of our 216 post-primary schools have closed their doors for the summer.

When schools return at the end of August, principals, boards of governors, parents and pupils will have little time to consult before the October 26 deadline.

Many parents will today have questions that cannot be answered, and others will be fearful and need reassurance. And with the start of the Assembly summer recess they may have difficulty getting in touch with their MLAs, some of whom sit as board of governors on these schools.

As if all that was not enough, the plans have the whiff of a sideways assault on academic selection.

This is an issue our politicians need to sort out once and for all and come clean on. What does the future really hold for academic selection?

The Catholic bishops could not be clearer on their plans to phase out academic selection. Minister O’Dowd and his Sinn Fein party are anti-selection. The DUP is a defender of the system.

Surely there needs to be an agreed decision on academic selection before the future of the school estate can be set in stone?

The other disappointment — though not surprise — was the boards’ lack of vision in failing to take steps to reduce segregation in our school system.

Children are not segregated at the beginning of their education at nursery or at the end of their education in university. So why are the boards continuing to segregate them in the middle of their education?

Out of 216 schools there are plans for shared management in just a handful. At a time when education is in financial dire straits the duplication of these services beggars belief.

These area plans are just the first step to reform — it is up to parents, pupils and the communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the weeks and months ahead.

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