Education Minister John O’Dowd has denied claims that his appointment of two high-profile Sinn Fein members to the board of governors of one of Northern Ireland’s top grammar schools is political.
His rebuttal comes as the Belfast Telegraph reveals the minister has appointed a third Sinn Fein activist to the board of governors of a second high-achieving grammar school.
The minister yesterday confirmed that he has “signed off” on the appointment of convicted triple killer Paul Kavanagh and Mary Nelis to the board of governors of Lumen Christi in Londonderry — despite strong objections from the grammar.
He claimed he selected governors on the “capabilities” and “skills” of applicants, and added that his appointments will stand up to scrutiny.
Kavanagh is a special adviser to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness while Mary Nelis is a Sinn Fein veteran and opponent of academic selection.
There has been a public outcry over the controversial appointments since the Belfast Telegraph broke the story last week.
“In the context of Lumen Christi as a highly successful grammar school which has taken a public stance on the question of academic selection, in defiance of the minister’s instruction and indeed the view of the Catholic Church, it is hard to see these appointments as anything other than a means of infiltration of the school’s board of governors, with the aim of influencing the stance taken by the present board,” said Alliance education spokesman Trevor Lunn.
The Department of Education has also defended its appointment of a third Sinn Fein member — this time to the board of governors of St Columb’s College in Derry. Sandra Duffy, chair of the party’s local cumann (branch), took up her governor post in May at the school that boasts Nobel Laureates John Hume, the ex-SDLP leader, and poet Seamus Heaney as past pupils.
Mrs Duffy is on record as a critic of academic selection at age 11.
“The minister's appointments are made in line with the main principles of the code of practice for Public Appointments,” said a department spokeswoman.
“There is nothing in the code of practice that bars applicants from being appointed because they are members of a political party.”
The principal of St Columb’s College was unavailable for comment yesterday.
But John Hart, director of the Governing Bodies Association, the sectoral body for Northern Ireland’s 52 voluntary grammar schools, said “these latest revelations only compound the issue”.
He continued: “Parents will rightly be concerned that last week’s exposé was not an isolated incident, but that it betrays a systematic effort to undermine the resolve of grammar schools to independently set their entrance criteria.
“Under the law schools are free to use academic selection if they so wish, and they must be provided with governors that best meet their requirements without fear or political favour.”
Meanwhile, SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly has accused Sinn Fein of taking “the low road in the education debate”.
“Sinn Fein must understand that civil society cannot be engineered through political appointments to suit their narrow, reactionary view of the world.”
In a letter to the Belfast Telegraph in 2009 Sandra Duffy said she was “delighted” with the decision to end academic selection at 11. She wrote: “For too long, we have allowed this system to fail our children... certain media machines continue to discuss the ‘mess' the education system is in. This so-called ‘mess' is, in fact, only a mess for the grammar schools.”
MLA’s wariness of political influence
By Lindsay Fergus
The Department of Education has made 83 board of governor appointments since John O’Dowd became Education Minister in May 2011.
Of those just five declared political links, according to the department.
Two have engaged in activity for Sinn Fein, two for the SDLP, and one for the Green Party— the figures do not include Sinn Fein’s Paul Kavanagh and Mary Nelis, as they have not yet taken up post.
None of the governors appointed by the Education Minister have links to the DUP, UUP or Alliance Party.
A department spokeswoman said: “Applicants are only asked to supply information on political activity after they have been selected for appointment and political affiliation plays no part in the selection process.”
DUP education spokesman, Mervyn Storey MLA, said: “Whilst the number of party political appointments appears to be relatively small, they are skewed in one direction. However, in recent weeks the Department of Education appears to have been ramping up its campaign against academic selection.
“The DUP will continue to resist these attempts and will stand with our schools in wanting the most suitable people to sit on boards of governors, and not simply those who share the minister’s views.”