The Commission for Catholic Education is setting up a working group to “try to manage the chaos” created by the failure of the Assembly to agree on a new school transfer system.
Bishop Donal McKeown, chair of the Commission, confirmed that the group would report back in five weeks’ time with recommendations on a way forward for the entire Catholic school sector.
A number of Catholic grammars have already stated their intention to join around 30 mainly Protestant grammar schools in setting their own entrance tests. Among them are Lumen Christi College in Londonderry, St Michael’s Grammar in Enniskillen, St Patrick’s Grammar in Downpatrick, Thornhill College in Derry, St Louis Grammar in Ballymena and St Mary’s Grammar in Magherafelt.
Bishop McKeown said today that the working group may recommend that selective tests are used for some schools.
If a separate Catholic school entrance test is devised for this sector alone this could ultimately lead to split in the education system along religious lines.
A chaotic and confusing unregulated education system has become a reality after the Education Minister admitted earlier this week that she had been unable to reach agreement with her Assembly colleagues on a replacement for the 11-plus exam.
The Education Minister confirmed to the Assembly that she was scrapping her offer to phase out academic selection over three years and instead announced new non-academic admissions criteria guidance for schools which are not legally binding.
Bishop McKeown said: “We are trying to manage the chaos by ensuring that the needs of primary schools, grammar schools and secondary schools are all met.
“We are asking three grammar principals and three secondary principals how we can manage this in the interests of all.
“We want to find a practical way forward in the context of a clear Catholic sector policy and are looking for ways to hold the sector together,” he told the BBC.
Bishop McKeown said that this could result in a different solution for different areas and he also said it was a possibility that some Catholic grammars could admit a percentage of their intake based on their academic ability or limit their intake to only A and B grades.
However, he stressed: “We are pushing to move towards a system where academic selection is not the dominant factor at age 11.”
And he said that the chaotic situation facing schools was “ultimately a political failure on the part of more than one party”.
Frank Bunting, from the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, welcomed the establishment of the working group.
“The Catholic sector is showing social responsibility and the working group reporting back in five weeks is much more timely than the years of wasted time spent on this issue to date,” he said.
“In the interests of cohesion it would be helpful if all schools could move in a similar direction but maybe that is asking too much.
“I welcome that practitioners from within schools are going to sit down with the Catholic Commission to devise a way forward which will be a move towards an education system that all children can benefit from.”
The guidance announced by Caitriona Ruane, which has been issued for 12 weeks of consultation, recommends that schools do not use academic admissions criteria and puts forward special provision for applicants receiving free school meals.