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O'Dowd has nudged the Catholic sector, now he wants to shift State schools

By Lindsay Fergus

For years Sinn Fein education ministers have been applying pressure on the Catholic Church to end academic selection.

That pressure has begun to bear fruit for John O'Dowd with three Catholic grammar schools stopping the practice, at least another three in the pipeline and others in talks.

The reason Mr O'Dowd and his predecessors have been able to apply pressure on the Catholic Church is because his department spends hundreds of millions of pounds every year maintaining Catholic education. It also provides funding to the Catholic sector through the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

However, the number of schools under the ownership of Protestant churches could be counted on one hand. There are also a handful of independent Christian schools, outside the state system, which receive no funding.

In fact, Protestant pupils have traditionally attended controlled schools, which as their name suggests, are controlled by the education and library boards and fall under the remit of Mr O'Dowd's own department.

There are 17 controlled grammars and 22 non-denominational voluntary grammars, which have no alignment to any of the Protestant churches. The only connection the Protestant churches have with controlled schools and non-denominational voluntary grammars is that their representatives can sit on their boards of governors alongside representatives from the department, parents etc.

Looking at the wider picture there are 29 Catholic grammar schools with seven having either moved, are consulting on or publicly declaring an interest in phasing out or moving away from selection, so that leaves just 22. In contrast there are 39 grammar schools that are not under Catholic management, and which show no signs of giving up their right to use academic selection.

And that is where the problem lies for Mr O'Dowd. So having loosened the bolts in the Catholic sector he is now seeking movement in schools traditionally attended by Protestant pupils.

He wants Protestant church leaders to take a leaf out of the Catholic Church's book and exert pressure on schools to end academic selection.

Mr O'Dowd wants them to "step up to the mark" and even uses the poor educational attainment of disadvantaged Protestant male pupils to make his point.

However, such pupils generally attend controlled secondary schools, which fall not under the Protestant churches remit but Mr O'Dowd's.

In fact, the controlled sector does not even have a sectoral support body – unlike its Catholic counterpart, which has been extremely successful in raising standards – so that makes the minister all the more culpable.

So perhaps he should take his own advice and "step up to the mark" in raising standards in the schools of which he is custodian.

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