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Start banging the drum for an end to divisive academic selection, O'Dowd urges Protestant church leaders

By Lindsay Fergus

The Education Minister has accused Protestant church leaders of failing their community – particularly young, working class males – by continuing to endorse academic selection.

In a strong message to the heads of the Presbyterian Church, Church of Ireland and Methodist Church, John O'Dowd said they needed to "step up to the mark".

Mr O'Dowd said their stance was in marked contrast to that of the Catholic Church, which he said was making strides towards ending academic selection.

And he revealed that more Catholic grammar schools are preparing to move away from the controversial practice.

"I think it is disappointing that it is only within the Catholic sector, and in fairness it has been led by the Catholic Church," Mr O'Dowd said. "There is a challenge here for Protestant churches and the Protestant church leaders, particularly when you look at the educational attainment among Protestant working class, particularly boys.

"I think there is a challenge to Protestant church leaders to step up to the mark, and their social responsibilities around education."

He added that there was also a responsibility for the churches, trade unions and business sector to "bring forward a challenge to politicians to remove the legislative guarantee of academic selection".

The right of academic selection is enshrined in legislation, and Mr O'Dowd does not have the authority to remove it. He also admitted that if he brought a proposal for a legislative change before the Assembly it "would fail".

Sinn Fein axed the State-run 11-plus transfer test in 2008 but in its place emerged two private tests run by the Post Primary Transfer Consortium and the Association for Quality Education. This November, a sixth cohort of P7 pupils will sit the unregulated tests in an effort to secure one of more than 8,000 Year 8 grammar school places.

So far Loreto College in Coleraine, St Michael's Grammar in Lurgan and St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh have moved away from academic selection. Omagh Christian Brothers' Grammar School and Loreto Grammar in Omagh are also planning to follow suit.

"The educational argument is beginning to win through," said Mr O'Dowd. "And I think those people who have made the decision are pathfinders, and they will give confidence to others to move in the same direction."

That leaves just 24 Catholic grammar schools, including Dominican College, Portstewart which would like to end academic selection by 2019 and St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar in west Belfast which is planning to admit one in four pupils without academic selection.

But according to the minister there are more Catholic grammar schools contemplating a shift. "There are a number who are involved in internal discussions, and some discussions with my department, and indeed myself as an individual, who are contemplating moving away," he said.

Although he would not name the schools, he admitted no controlled grammar or non-denominational grammar school had indicated a willingness to phase out academic selection.

Background

Northern Ireland has 68 grammar schools – although not all of them use academic selection to determine their intake. There are 17 controlled grammars, all of which use academic selection. There are 22 non-denominational voluntary grammar schools, all using academic selection. There are 29 Catholic voluntary grammar schools, three of which do not use academic selection.

In his own words: what the minister says about...

...THE IRISH LANGUAGE

“I certainly want to see it spread beyond what would be seen as its traditional roots in terms of growth, but the Irish language does not belong to any one sector; it doesn't belong to any one of the main communities.”

...THE EDUCATION AND SKILLS AUTHORITY (ESA)

“ESA is definitely on the shelf for the mandate of the Assembly. I believe, moving into the future, ESA will be returned to in a new Assembly mandate.”

...THE DUP

“I would say there are elements within the DUP who are a major stumbling block to ESA moving forward.”

...A REPLACEMENT FOR THE FIVE EDUCATION AND LIBRARY BOARDS

“What I am proposing is that we reduce the boards down to one to cover the entire North, and we use the model that came out of ESA in terms of representation. That gives equality of representation and allows all sectors to sit round one table and make decisions on the way forward.”

...ACADEMIC SELECTION

“When you drill down into this debate, particularly with practitioners, whether it be boards of governors, educators, teachers within the schools, their concerns are not so much about the entry criteria of the school but the status in terms of the management type of their school.”

...SCHOOL FEES

“We have an education system that is free at the point of delivery. There should be no barriers to any pupil going into any school, financially or otherwise. So I am concerned when quite significant fees are charged by schools or set by schools.”

...SINN FEIN RETAINING EDUCATION IN 2016

“I think personally education is a key cornerstone of any society and if you are going to embed opportunity for everyone, equality for everyone in society then education is a key way of doing that. But the final decision on what portfolios Sinn Fein will take will be for the party leadership.”

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