Cardinal Brady accuses Catholic schools of getting pupils by 'stealth'

Transfer test generic picture The INTO union said that secondary schools were 'bearing the brunt' of falling pupil numbers

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The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland has accused some grammar schools of attempting to absorb nearby secondary schools "by stealth".

Cardinal Sean Brady made the remarks after it was confirmed that several schools in the Catholic maintained sector would close.

The report also recommends the amalgamation of others, including grammar and secondary schools.

But there is no deadline for abandoning academic selection.

The schools earmarked for closure include St Gemma's in Belfast; St Peter's, Londonderry; St Mary's, Belleek; Drumcree College, Portadown and St Eugene's in Castlederg.

The commission had hoped that academic selection in Catholic grammar schools would end in 2012.

They have been working on the report since 2006, on the basis there are too many schools and too few pupils to make economic and educational sense.

Cardinal Brady was speaking at St Mary's College in Belfast when he criticised continuing academic selection by schools.

"It is totally unacceptable that some Catholic schools are, in effect, becoming all ability schools, while local secondary schools bear all the negative consequences of educational change," he said.

"What is happening in some areas is, in fact, the absorption by stealth of secondary schools by local grammar schools who are changing their entrance grade requirements to keep their numbers up."

Phased abandonment

The head of the Commission on Catholic Education, Bishop Donal McKeown, told Radio Ulster's Evening Extra he wanted rid of academic selection as soon as possible.

"We are working towards convincing people that it is possible to provide quality academic education without the charade, that exists only in Northern Ireland, of academic selection," he said.

"I think we have to show them (parents) that it is part of the past, not part of the future. We can try to build on the past and create something much better for the 21st century with everyone deserving quality education."

BBC Northern Ireland's education correspondent Maggie Taggart said that differing views on academic selection had led to the removal of any deadline.

"Catholic bishops have for years been trying to convince Catholic grammar schools to give up using academic selection, but they have defied that policy and have been using entrance examinations for the last three years.

"The latest plan is for a phased abandonment of selection, with no deadline."

Trade unions said all five schools marked for closure had been feeling under threat.

Brendan Harron from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said that he was concerned for the jobs of their members.

"The secondary schools, non-grammar schools, are again bearing the brunt of the falling number situation - an unfair, non-proportionate brunt, I think.

"The premise for the whole restructuring was to be a move away from academic selection and equality for all.

"If the building block of the move away from academic selection is removed, then the whole wall collapses."

The Catholic Principals Association, which represents many secondary school headteachers, said that the lack of a time-scale for ending academic selection was a "major fault" in the report.

Ethos

The Education Minister John O'Dowd welcomed the review.

"I recognise the complexity of modernising the delivery of our education system and the anxiety that will be caused to those affected by difficult decisions," he said.

"However, we need to set institutional interests aside and focus on the needs of pupils.

"As minister, I will only endorse a recommendation to close a school following consultation with relevant stakeholders and if it is proven that it benefits the needs of pupils both now and in the future."

The director of the Governing Bodies Association (GBA), John Hart, said that schools would take time to reflect on Monday's report.

The GBA represents 52 voluntary grammar schools including all 30 Catholic grammar schools in NI.

"Boards of governors alone are responsible for deciding admissions policy," he said.

"Indeed it is appropriate these decisions are taken by people who understand the local needs and ethos of schools in their community."

The report also said that Assumption Grammar in Ballynahinch would remain a girls school. There were plans for the school to become co-educational.

Cuts in funding and demands for each school to provide more subjects, make restructuring more urgent than ever.

Staff at the 100 post-primary schools in the Catholic sector have already been briefed on their future.

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