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Protestant churches unite in call for new body to support controlled schools

By Lindsay Fergus

The three main Protestant churches are to unite in a call to the Education Minister to set up a body to champion controlled schools – in a similar way to how Catholic schools are overseen, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The Church Of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church, which collectively have around 590,000 members in Northern Ireland, are so concerned about the plight of the controlled sector that it will be raised at the highest level at their annual Synod, Assembly and Conference.

The three churches have more than 1,900 nominees sitting on the board of governors of controlled schools, many of which were in church ownership until they were handed over to the State following partition in 1921.

They would like a body similar to the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), which oversees Catholic schools and is funded by the Department of Education.

Dr Kenneth Dunn, the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, will today bring a motion to the Church of Ireland's General Synod, as it gets under way in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

His motion expresses "deep concern" over the "continued disadvantaged position of controlled schools due to a lack of a dedicated advocacy and support body".

And it calls on Sinn Fein minister John O'Dowd to "take steps to resolve this injustice and ensure equality of treatment for all schools".

It is understood similar motions will be raised at the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly at Church House in Belfast in June and the Methodist Church's Annual Conference in Dublin, also next month.

Pressure – both political and community – is mounting on Mr O'Dowd to set up a support body for the controlled sector, and in particular, to tackle the high levels of underachievement amongst Protestant working-class boys.

Only Roma and Traveller children are getting poorer results, according to a study published last month by the Community Relations Council.

It found that 80% of Protestant boys entitled to free school meals did not achieve five GCSEs, including English and maths, compared to 66% of Catholic boys from a disadvantaged background.

However, unionist politicians are concerned following Tuesday's debate in the Assembly – which also called for a controlled sector support body – that Mr O'Dowd is playing political football with the 500 controlled schools, which are overwhelming attended by pupils from a Protestant background.

Although the minister said he remained determined to tackle educational underachievement "wherever it exists", he would not commit to a controlled sector support body unless the now parked Education and Skills Authority (ESA) went ahead.

"Failure to make progress on the Bill and the establishment of ESA meant that work on establishing sectoral support bodies had to be discontinued.

"It would not be appropriate for my department to fund further expenditure on supporting parts of the Heads of Agreement while the principal part of the agreement remains stalled," Mr O'Dowd said.

Mervyn Storey, the DUP's education spokesman and chairman of Stormont's education committee, accused the minister of holding the controlled sector "to ransom".

He said: "I very much welcome the motions that will be debated at the various churches, synods, assemblies and conferences. This just underlines the importance of this issue and confirms that I and my party is right to ensure that the needs of the controlled sector are addressed in any new arrangements.

"The controlled sector must not be held to ransom by the minister and his party as part of some game to gain political advantage. This does a great disservice, not only to those who work in the sector, but also to the many children and young people who are educated within controlled schools."

The Department of Education already provides around £3m in funding a year for CCMS, which supports Catholic schools and has been very successful in raising standards over the past two decades.

The integrated sector also has a support body in the form of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) as does the Irish-medium sector through Comhairle Na Gaelscolaiochta (CnaG).

The Department of Education declined to comment on the move by the Church of Ireland stating that the minister had clearly set out his position in the Assembly on Tuesday.

BACKGROUND

The Protestant churches are calling for a single body to champion controlled schools in a similar way to the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. It comes amid pressure to tackle the high levels of underachievement amongst Protestant working class boys in Northern Ireland. Only Roma and traveller children are getting poorer results, according to a study published last month by the Community Relations Council. It found 80% of Protestant boys entitled to free school meals did not achieve five GCSEs including English and maths compared to 66% of Catholic boys from a disadvantaged background.

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