Belfast Telegraph

No place for cronyism in Northern Ireland's education system

Editor's Viewpoint

Education Minister John O'Dowd is an avowed opponent of academic selection. That is his party's policy and he can claim a mandate for working towards that objective. Yet there is something disturbing about the process as evidenced yet again by the decision of St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh to become an all-abilities place of learning.

We do not say that the decision to move to all-abilities status to enable an intake of pupils from St Brigid's High School, a secondary school in the area which is due to close, will necessarily lead to a diminution of teaching standards. There is no evidence to suggest that St Patrick's will cease in its efforts to create the best possible learning environment for all its future pupils.

What is of concern is how the process of change came about. There are suggestions that pressure from the Catholic Church, which is opposed to academic selection, and the appointment of three people with strong anti-selection views to the board of governors of St Patrick's, helped smooth the path for the change of status. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, but political opponents of Mr O'Dowd feel that boards of governors of schools are being packed with people who share his views on education. This is tactical manoeuvring which sits at odds to the principle of fair and open government.

What role can parents play in this? Where is the open debate around the province on the question of academic selection? Education is too important to be the subject of subterfuge and change by stealth.

How can parents, for example, be assured of the status of the school that they send their children to when it can be changed almost overnight and without any input from those most directly affected?

Mr O'Dowd says he hopes that more grammar schools may decide by themselves to change their status. Is that a hint that he will use other means if they do not fall in with his academic model?

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