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Domino effect as schools drop academic selection


Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O'Dowd

Education Minister John O'Dowd

Many Catholic middle-class parents with children of primary school age, particularly those whose sons and daughters are in Years 5 or 6, must be giving more than a passing thought to the domino effect in Catholic voluntary grammar schools.

It seems that hardly a month goes by without another Catholic grammar school signalling its intent to move away from the controversial process of academic selection at the age of 11, reducing parental choice.

Just last week two more schools, Loreto Grammar in Omagh and Omagh Christian Brothers' Grammar, revealed that they propose to phase out academic selection starting in 2015, potentially leaving no selective Catholic schools in the Co Tyrone town.

That announcement followed hot on the heels of similar plans for St Mary's Christian Brothers' Grammar School in west Belfast and Dominican College, Portstewart – the only selective Catholic school in the Co Londonderry seaside town.

Earlier this year two other Catholic grammar schools secured the necessary approval needed from Education Minister John O'Dowd to immediately end academic selection – St Patrick's Grammar in Armagh and St Michael's Grammar in Lurgan – eliminating selection from Catholic schools in Co Armagh.

Add those six to the trailblazer, Loreto College in Coleraine, which stopped using academic selection in September last year (again, the only selective Catholic school in Coleraine) and that means seven of 29 Catholic grammar schools – one in four – has either ceased using the results of the unregulated GL Assessments to select their Year 8 pupils or hopes to do so in the future.

At that pace of change, in as little as 13 years there could be no Catholic grammar schools wholly using academic selection at the age of 11.

Education Minister Mr O'Dowd, whose Sinn Fein party scrapped the 11-plus only to see with dismay it replaced with not one, but two unregulated transfer tests, must be elated. As must the Catholic Church, which for years has been calling on grammar schools to open their doors to all pupils.

Until recently Catholic grammar schools have been digging their heels in and refusing to abandon academic selection, but one by one they are falling in line with the Church's and Education Minister's views.

And it doesn't take a genius to realise that more Catholic grammar schools will follow suit.

Rumours had been rife about several of the above named schools stopping selection long before it became a reality and there is speculation that five more Catholic grammar schools are under increasing pressure from their trustees.

So, where does that leave Catholic middle-class parents? I say Catholic because there are just 257 Protestant pupils (less than 1%) among the 27,262 students that attend Catholic voluntary grammar schools and for now there is no threat to non-denominational voluntary or controlled grammar schools, traditionally attended by Protestant pupils.

And I say middle-class, as only one Catholic voluntary grammar school has more pupils entitled to free school meals than the Northern Ireland average, with the majority having around one in 10, several even fewer, pupils from a disadvantaged background.

The Catholic Principals' Association (CPA), whose role is to promote the Catholic ethos of schools and supports a system of all-ability schools, recently conducted a poll that found two-thirds of Catholic primary school principals believe irreparable harm could be done to the Catholic education system if selection continues.

The CPA, like the Catholic Church, believes academic selection at 11 has created a two-tier system and that the current education system is irreconcilable with Catholic teaching on education and social justice.

With the growing trend in Catholic voluntary grammar schools to stop academic selection, middle -lass Catholics have some tough decisions to make as so-called parental choice diminishes.

Do they put Church first or selection first? As the recently published Belfast Telegraph GCSE and A-Level league tables show, the best achieving schools are not only selective grammar schools but Catholic selective grammar schools.

No non-selective school appears in the GCSE top 50, and in the GCSE top 10 eight of the schools are Catholic.

There is a vast gap between the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs including English and maths at grades A* to C in selective schools (93.9%) and non-selective schools (37.7%).

Although all-ability schools will have more pupils entitled to free school meals, will more of those pupils achieve five good GCSEs? Hopefully, but it is too early to say.

Those parents who desire wholly selective schools currently have the choice of 22 Catholic grammar schools but with no guarantees they will remain so – or they could send their child to one of the 39 non-Catholic grammar schools, which remain committed to academic selection, like 10% of their peers.

In turn that could lead to non-Catholic grammar schools becoming more integrated, but it could also cost some Protestant pupils a grammar school place, creating a potential political nightmare for some unionist parties.

It is hard to envisage elite Catholic grammar schools like Lumen Christ College in Derry or Our Lady and St Patrick's College at Knock ceasing academic selection.

But who knows where the domino effect will end?

No one can deny that there is a growing trend in Catholic grammar schools to phase out or stop academic selection at 11.

Many will be left wondering if the current two-tier system based on academic selection at 11 is drawing to an end?

Lindsay Fergus is a freelance journalist specialising in education

Belfast Telegraph