Catholic schools have been forced to move ahead with plans to radically reform the post-primary system across Northern Ireland because of the political vacuum at Stormont, it was claimed today.
Bishop Donal McKeown, who chairs the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE), also said action must be taken to improve the education system here, which currently does exceptionally well for a minority but “terribly badly for others”.
And he confirmed that Aquinas Grammar in Belfast — where he is chair of the board of governors — is planning to move away from using academic selection.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Bishop McKeown, from Down and Connor Diocese, spoke about NICCE's post-primary review project.
Public consultation on controversial proposals launched earlier this year officially closed at the end of June, and the commission is assessing the responses. It hopes to produce a summary of the area plans in October.
“We are hoping that a wide range of options will come forward during the consultation,” the NICCE chair said.
“The proposals are not trustee options dumped on schools. They are ideas which came from the schools to the trustees and I would be quite happy for there to be changes in some of the proposals.”
Bishop McKeown said shaking up Catholic post-primary education was a huge undertaking, but “if we don’t do it, no one will do it”.
Turning to the political stalemate over school transfer, Bishop McKeown said that schools have a right to expect solutions from the political leadership, rather than problems.
He was referring to the ongoing row between Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane and other Stormont parties over what will replace the defunct 11-plus.
The minister has pushed ahead with plans to abolish academic selection as a way of transferring children from primary to post-primary school, despite strong opposition from grammar schools across Northern Ireland, including many Catholic grammars, which have continued using unregulated tests.
“Schools should not have to worry about the infighting,” he said. “We should be provided with a legislated system. Children should not be a battleground on which political battles are fought.
“It will take the two major political parties at Stormont to agree a legislative way forward. They need to face up to their responsibilities.
“However, we also need agreement that our system needs huge overhaul and that our system is failing before we can get solutions. Some people still think that we have a wonderful system. I don't want to put schools down, but think that we can do much better in terms of structure.”
He said schools had no choice but to try and move forward.
“Because of the vacuum there is in terms of agreement at Stormont we have to try and move forward,” he said.
“I am quite convinced at the rightness of our decision to try and find a way forward to sustain schools and to respond to a very changing economy.
“Thousands of children are leaving school at 16 every year without five good GCSEs. That is shocking. We do so well at the top end but we have a terribly wasteful education system.”
Bishop McKeown said the timescale for changes to Catholic schools will vary from area to area.
“All we can do is keep the momentum going and trust that solutions will come out at different times and at different speeds, but I am confident in terms of the direction of travel,” he said.
“We want to get it right and will stick at it until we get it done. We are also happy to have a discussion with anyone outside of Catholic education.”
Bishop McKeown said there is a mixed view at grammar schools.
“I am chair of the board of governors at Aquinas Grammar where there is a commitment to moving away from selection as soon as possible,” he said.
“I think in most cases it will be a gradual thing.”
The church leader described Northern Ireland’s education system as “globally very poor”.
He also said there is no accurate way to measure intelligence or potential at the age of 10 or 11.
“Because we have pass and fail schools, everyone will want to go to the pass schools but we cannot put people into two silos at the age of 10,” he said.
“We need different sorts of schools with a different emphasis, rather than be stuck with an antiquated notion of pass and fail.”