Protestant leaders hit back at Sean O'Dowd 'attack'
The education minister has been accused of "bully boy tactics" after he criticised Protestant church leaders for their continued support for academic selection.
John O'Dowd expressed his disappointment that only grammar schools within the Catholic sector were moving away from the controversial process of academic selection.
And he said there was a "challenge for Protestant church leaders to step up to the mark, and their social responsibilities around education" – particularly the educational attainment among Protestant working-class boys.
But the comments have provoked anger from unionist politicians and surprise from the three main Protestant churches.
Rev Dr Ian Ellis, secretary of the Transferor Representatives' Council (TRC) said: "The Transferor churches are surprised by the minister's comments – he knows that we have consistently drawn attention to the need to address underachievement and that it is a much broader issue than just academic selection.
"On the matter of academic selection, the churches are agreed on the need to review the present system of selection at 11 and have pleaded for a consensus approach by politicians to find an agreed way forward to reform it."
The TRC represents the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland in educational matters. Mervyn Storey, DUP education spokesman and chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said: "The Protestant churches have made clear... their deep concern over the continued disadvantaged position of controlled schools and called on the minister to 'take steps to resolve this injustice and ensure equality of treatment for all schools'.
"Also they have made constructive suggestions regarding some minor amendments to legislation which would resolve the matter.
"These have the full backing of the DUP. Rather than accept this and move forward, the minister has dug his heels in and is resorting to bully boy tactics."
Danny Kinahan, Ulster Unionist education spokesman, claimed Mr O'Dowd showed "a wilful ignorance of the fundamental difference between the roles of the churches in the Catholic maintained sector and the state controlled sector".
"The minister is dismayed by the concept of dividing pupils by academic ability, but seems to have no problem with continued segregation on the basis of community background," Mr Kinahan added.
Controlled schools are non-denominational but many are former Protestant church schools whose control was transferred to the state after the First World War. Controlled schools are owned by the Department of Education but managed by boards of governors and the education and library boards. The three largest Protestant churches – Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist – known as Transferors, maintain a link with many controlled schools where they have the right to appoint four of the nine governors.