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Head loses fight to keep grammar school: Armagh principal opposed change he must now accept


A school principal has lost a long-running battle to keep academic selection at a historic grammar school.

The Belfast Telegraph can reveal that the head of St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh once warned against all-ability schools.

Now with mounting pressure from the Catholic Church, its governing body and the Education Minister John O'Dowd, St Patrick's will open its doors to boys of all abilities from September.

The news comes after Mr O'Dowd yesterday gave St Patrick's the green light to immediately abandon academic selection and increase its enrolment to cater for the phased closure of St Brigid's High, a secondary school in Armagh.

St Patrick's had initially sought to retain academic selection, accepting up to 55% of its intake through the GL Assessment, but at the eleventh hour the development proposal was revised to scrap academic selection.

Ironically, principal Fr Kevin Donaghy, a supporter of the secondary and grammar school system, had in June 2002 warned against all-ability schools.

"We have major concerns about proposals emanating from many parties to this debate to replace existing structures with a system of all-ability schools.

"We do not regard a system of all-ability schools as presenting the best option to replace our current secondary and grammar schools," he said.

The comments were made in a paper, in which Fr Donaghy is named, by the Catholic Heads' Association in response to a report by the Post Primary Review Body.

One educationalist was "surprised" by the decision, particularly given Fr Donaghy's "pro-academic" stance.

The teacher priest is also a past chairman of the Governing Bodies' Association, which represents 52 voluntary grammar schools and is a member of the Catholic Heads' Association, which supports selection.

There are suggestions that, as a priest, Fr Donaghy was under pressure from the Catholic Church, which has urged schools to stop using selection.

He was unavailable for comment, but a statement from St Patrick's Grammar School said it "welcomes the minister's decision".

It continued: "A recent inspection report observed that 'the high standards of achievement at A-Level are a feature of the work of the school'.

"Thus we know that we are very well placed and well experienced to provide for pupils of very high academic ability while also ensuring that we look after those for whom school is more of a challenge."

The Belfast Telegraph can also reveal that at least three opponents of academic selection have recently been appointed to the board of governors of St Patrick's.

Sinn Fein members Noel Sheridan and Gerard White were appointed in January alongside Kevin Scally, the former head of St Joseph's High in Crossmaglen and a prominent member of the Catholic Principals' Association, which has been lobbying for an end to academic selection.

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said: "It has been a concern for some time that the appointment process to boards of governors of grammar schools has been driven by the minister's particular view on the use of academic criteria as an admissions policy and this has led to the appointment of those who have been very vocal in their opposition to grammar schools and their ethos."

Danny Kinahan, the UUP's education spokesman, also described the "tactic" as "sly" and called on Mr O'Dowd to find a joint way forward instead of undermining schools.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said it and the Education and Library Boards were responsible for filling only about one-third of the posts available for school governors.

"The minister makes appointments based on merit but also to promote diversity in public life.

"This does not alter the primacy of the merit principle but does mean that he will also have regard to the need to ensure that public appointees are more representative of society than is presently the case."

Mr O'Dowd said: "The time has long passed for grammar schools to begin the process of ending selection by academic means. I hope that yet more grammar schools will show the bravery and fortitude to consider how they might make the change themselves."

Move is a game-changer for locality

The move by St Patrick's means academic selection in the Catholic sector has been wiped out in the Armagh and Craigavon area.

It follows last week's decision to merge St Michael's Grammar in Lurgan with two nearby non-selective schools, St Mary's High and St Paul's Junior High.

Although the new school catering for 1,750 pupils will be a voluntary grammar for 11 to 18 year-olds it will not use academic selection to determine its intake.

St Patrick's will be the third Catholic grammar school in the past year to drop academic selection.

Sources have said Catholic grammar schools that accept lower grades using unregulated GL Assessment tests are the most vulnerable to pressure from the Catholic Church and Education Minister to ditch academic selection.

According to the most recent figures from the Department of Education, 92.2% of pupils achieved five GCSEs including English and Maths at grades A* to C – making it one of the lower achieving grammars.

An institution steeped in history

St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh was created in 1988 with the amalgamation of Armagh's boys' grammar schools – St Patrick's College and Christian Brothers' School (CBS), Greenpark.

St Patrick's College was established as a junior seminary by Archbishop Crolly in 1838, and was under the direction of the Archdiocese of Armagh priests until 1861 when the Vincentian Order took charge, which it did until the amalgamation.

The Irish Christian Brothers arrived in Armagh in 1851 at the invitation of Archbishop Cullen, later to be Ireland's first cardinal.

The Brothers later acquired the Greenpark site and established Christian Brothers' Grammar School, Greenpark, which built up a strong academic and sporting tradition.

When the Vincentian Order signalled its intention to leave Armagh, Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich asked the Irish Christian Brothers to become joint trustees of the new school.

Christian Brothers remained on staff until 1999, which was also the year the long tradition of boarding at St Patrick's ended.

What happens next... and what the changes will mean

Q When will St Patrick's Grammar School stop using selection?

A It will move to an entirely non-selective admissions arrangement with immediate effect.

Q What will happen to the pupils currently attending St Brigid's?

A St Brigid's High School will cease to admit Year 8 and Year 11 pupils and will close no later than August 31, 2016.

Meanwhile, St Patrick's Grammar School will also, over a two-year period, undergo a phased expansion up to 1,240 pupils.

Q Why is St Brigid's High School closing?

A St Brigid's is not sustainable. In recent years the school has suffered from declining enrolments, with only 190 children enrolled in 2013/14. The proposal to close St Brigid's was put forward together with a recommendation to increase the capacity at St Patrick's.

Q Was St Patrick's not supposed to retain academic selection?

A Yes. In October the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) published a development proposal that the school no longer select all its intake on the basis of academic selection with effect from September 1, 2014, or as soon as possible thereafter, using the GL assessment process to select a maximum of 55% of its intake. The minister approved a modified version that St Patrick's Grammar School will move immediately, or as soon as possible, to an entirely non-selective admissions arrangement.

Q Will St Patrick's continue to be called a grammar school?

A Yes, it will remain as a voluntary grammar, meaning it can charge fees but will not use selection.

Q So, what is an all-ability school?

A It is a school that accepts pupils of all abilities, those who are academic and those who find school a challenge. Pupils do not have to sit a test to gain admission.

Q Does it have a different curriculum?

A No, the same curriculum is taught in every post-primary school throughout Northern Ireland. However, the needs of every pupil will be different so some may have be entered for higher level exams and some will take GCSE equivalents etc to ensure the needs of every pupil is met.

Q Are there any successful all-ability schools?

A Yes, St Catherine's College in Armagh. The all-girl school has an excellent academic record with its GCSE results surpassing some grammar schools.

Q Does that mean a pupil who attends a Catholic maintained primary school in the Armagh area can no longer go on to a selective grammar school?

A No, the Royal School in Armagh is a non denominational grammar school that is open to everyone who sits the AQE Common Entrance Assessment. However, if they want to attend a Catholic grammar school that uses selection they will have to travel to Newry or Dungannon.

Academic selection critics appointed as governors

Three of the four most recent Stormont appointments to the board of governors at St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh are known opponents of academic selection.

Like the Education Minister John O'Dowd, Gerard White and Noel Sheridan are members of Sinn Fein.

The republican party is firmly opposed to academic selection and scrapped the 11-plus.

Mr White and Mr Sheridan were appointed alongside the former head of St Joseph's High School in Crossmaglen, Kevin Scally, in mid January.

Mr Scally is highly regarded in the field of education – and strongly opposes selection.

The prominent member of the Catholic Principals' Association once said: "All-ability schools such as St Joseph's prove that all young people can achieve success without recourse to unregulated academic selection."

During his time as head of St Joseph's High School in Crossmaglen, the school was among the top achieving non-selective schools.

These three, along with Rev Tony Davidson, have been the only departmental appointees since 2007. Their tenure runs until December 2016.

Mr White is the Deputy Mayor of Armagh City Council. The 32-year-old also works in Craigavon Hospital.

Noel Sheridan was elected to Armagh Council in 1993. He was deputy mayor in 2007 and served as mayor in 2008/09.

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