John O’Dowd accused of 'illegal' school board appointments
The Education Minister has been accused of acting illegally over controversial public appointments to schools’ boards of governors.
It comes as the Belfast Telegraph reveals that a second prominent member of Sinn Fein is set to take up post as a governor at one of Northern Ireland’s top grammar schools.
Mary Nelis, a fierce opponent of academic selection, is in line to join convicted IRA killer Paul Kavanagh as a Department of Education representative on the board of governors at Lumen Christi College, Londonderry.
That means there will be two high-profile Sinn Fein members on Lumen Christi’s board of governors when the appointments are finalised.
Kavanagh is a special adviser to Martin McGuinness in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFDFM) — where his wife, Martina Anderson MEP — was a junior minister.
However, a Department of Education spokesman said: “The minister has (legislative) authority... to make the appointments and he does so having regard for the main principles of the Code of Practice for Public Appointments.”
Questions are now being raised about the pending public appointments — as the Department of Education is controlled by a Sinn Fein minister and an outspoken critic of grammar schools’ continued use of academic selection.
The Governing Bodies Association (GBA) — which represents Northern Ireland’s 52 voluntary grammar schools — has hit out at the department for what it alleges is a breach of protocol.
Director John Hart claimed: “Last year the minister started to make appointments without consultation. The GBA obtained legal advice that this may be unlawful, but rather than go to court sought a negotiated outcome.
“The GBA met the minister in February and it was agreed that departmental officials and the GBA would attempt to put in place a new consultative process. It was also agreed that further appointments would be postponed until a new procedure was in place.
“Since then, despite reminders, there has been no substantive response from the department.”
DUP education spokesman and chairman of Stormont’s education committee Mervyn Storey said: “Under the Education Order 1986, it is clear that the minister must consult with a school's board of governors and the relevant education and library board before any appointments can be made.
“It is my understanding that the minister may be attempting to make these appointments outside of the proper legal process. If true, this is intolerable.
“It is time for the minister to put a stop to this process and cease from his toxic party political campaign against grammar schools.”
Lumen Christi was one of the first grammar schools to defy then Education Minister Caitriona Ruane by continuing to use academic selection to determine its Year 8 intake.
The grammar school last year had 100% of pupils achieve five GCSEs at grade C and above, including English and maths.