Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Bishops plan to end ‘outdated’ academic selection in Northern Ireland Catholic schools

One in four pupils admitted into Catholic grammar schools by September 2014 will not sit an entrance exam, under new plans revealed by Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops.

The action plan to phase out academic selection at age 11 has been signed by the senior trustees of all of Northern Ireland’s dioceses — including Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The bishops and auxiliaries yesterday called on all education sectors to end an ‘outdated’ system of academic selection, which is allegedly failing to ‘fulfil’ the needs of this generation.

It comes four years after Northern Ireland’s pupils sat the last 11-plus exam — and four months after the publication of a radical shake-up for the Catholic sector, which could see a number of grammar schools and non-selective schools in the Catholic sector merge.

The new proposals call for all Catholic grammar schools to operate a policy of admitting no more than 75% of pupils through academic selection by the beginning of the 2014 academic year.

The statement leaves no room for doubt on the church’s intentions. But there was no indication yesterday of the way forward if the proposals went unheeded.

Of Northern Ireland’s 29 Catholic grammar schools, all but one — Loreto College in Coleraine — have already signed up for a new year of GL (transfer) tests.

Although bishops have ruled out using sanctions to compel the largely unmoved body of Catholic grammars towards change, they hinted that when the current term for boards of governors runs out next year, they will appoint people who support the new policy.

Monsignor Eamon Martin, administrator of the Diocese of Derry, called for legislation which would prevent schools from using entrance tests.

He said: “At the moment, a grammar school can legally set its own test. So that needs to be removed.“

The Department of Education said its minister, John O’Dowd, will study the bishops’ statement and “respond in due course”.

Jim Clarke, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), believes more than 70% of Catholic grammars are waiting for someone else to jump before they end selection. The long-running debacle, he said, will ultimately come down to finances and falling pupil numbers.

“These are publicly funded schools. We don’t fund schools to act in their own interests,” he said.

Clerical trustees laid a large portion of blame with unionist politicians — who they claimed are using academic selection as ‘a political football’.

However, Monsignor Martin is confident that grammar schools — including Northern Ireland’s highest achieving grammar school, Londonderry’s Lumen Christi College — will agree to use academic selection for just 75% of its pupils by September 2014.

Lumen Christi said it had no comment to make when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph.

Other top Catholic grammar schools that were not available for comment yesterday were Rathmore Grammar, Assumption Grammar and Our Lady’s and St Patrick’s College.

Jim Clarke, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), believes more than 70% of Catholic grammars are just ‘waiting for someone else to jump’ before they end selection.

The long-running debacle, he said, will ultimately come down to finances and falling pupil numbers.

He added: “These are publicly funded schools. We don’t fund schools to act in their own interests.”

Story so far

Of Northern Ireland’s 29 Catholic grammar schools, all but one — Loreto College in Coleraine — have already signed up for a new year of transfer tests.

In a report published in February, the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) provided detailed recommendations for the future of schools in the sector.

Crippling budget cuts and falling pupil numbers prompted the review, which began in 2010. NICCE says the shake-up will remove the need for academic tests by creating a new network of all-ability schools.

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