Parents' concerns over Catholic grammar admission criteria plans
CHILDREN fighting for places at Catholic schools are to be asked to sit 11-plus tests - based on where they live.
From this year, a pupil's home parish will determine whether or not they must take entrance exams to be admitted to new `bi-lateral' schools.
Young people living on the schools' doorsteps will transfer using non-academic criteria.
Those further away - even at traditional feeder primaries - will be the only ones who must sit unregulated tests.
Parents say this system is unfair.
The changes are being made first in Kilkeel while there are plans to introduce a geographical element to academic selection in Downpatrick.
The Catholic Church is opposed to 11-plus tests and wants all its schools to end the practice.
Plans to now introduce geography into the debate is unprecedented.
Bi-lateral schools already exist in the north, but their separate `grammar' and `all ability' streams are open to all children.
This will not be the case in Co Down where grammar and non-grammar schools are coming together.
In Kilkeel, St Louis Grammar School is to expand while St Columban's College will close. This will end the practice at St Louis' of admitting every pupil based on test scores.
The new, larger school, will instead adopt a bi-lateral approach to ensure children from the parishes of Lower and Upper Mourne will be admitted through non-academic criteria.
Up to 40 per cent of Year 8 places will then be "available to children from the wider region by means of academic selection". It currently has children who travel from places including Newry, Newcastle and Rathfriland. In future, they would still have to take tests.
In a written consultation, staff raised concerns saying families with a long history of attending St Louis should be allowed entry through the non-academic route "even if they are not `local'."
The governors of St Mark's High School in Warrenpoint also objected.
"Students from the contributing primary schools will have automatic entry into the school irrespective of their ability or indeed the need to sit a transfer test," they wrote.
"This indicates that the school will now technically be an all ability grammar school, so why is there the need to offer a secondary cohort of students that achieve an appropriate grade in the transfer test."
In Downpatrick, meanwhile, there are plans involving De La Salle High, St Mary's High and St Patrick's Grammar and St Columba's College in Portaferry.
One option would see the creation of a single 1,600 pupil college.
There are concerns that children at many primary schools will be denied automatic entry based on where they live.
Parents told the Irish News that this was far from fair and equitable, adding it did not bring academic selection to an end and was not in children's best interests.
St Patrick’s Grammar School’s Parent Friends Association (PFA) said there was a need to suspend the consultation exercise.
"This is a local issue. It is one that seeks a very localised and unique response. It requires those that know, live and care about all the children in the Lecale and Ards area to find a solution that will work for all our children," said PFA chairman Cormac Artt.
"We are trying to defend all children in this area. Those in Newcastle, Dundrum, Teconnaught, Crossgar, Loughinisland and Carryduff for example, will not get a place in this new school without a transfer test while those in the town itself will get automatic entry."
THIS is a somewhat unusual situation.
For an institution that is so vocal in its opposition to academic selection, it seems illogical that it would consider it in any form.
However, the Catholic Church is on the horns of a dilemma trying to appease both the grammar and non-grammar camps.
The solution in Kilkeel was designed to ease concerns that children would still be able to attend the local school without taking a test - something the to-be-shut St Columban's offered.
This meant that a boundary had to be created - and some families who traditionally would have travelled into St Columban's from outside the two named parishes - will now face exams.
There is a similar picture emerging in Downpatrick, where for years, pupils have transferred from Loughinisland, Teconnaught, Killyleagh and Seaforde. They will still likely transfer from those areas, and will still take tests, but their peers living closer to the proposed school will avoid exams.
There is no official or legal definition of a bi-lateral school. Such schools, which award some places based on entrance test scores, have existed for many years.
To attend Lagan College in Belfast or Slemish in Ballymena, for example, a child can sit a test, or not and hope they meet the non-academic criteria to gain an `all ability' stream spot.
Holy Cross in Strabane is bi-lateral but has no tests at all.
Elsewhere, mergers of grammar and non-grammar schools have produced different models - although they are pretty much the same.
Neither St Killian's in Carnlough or St Ronan's in Lurgan, which both merged grammar and secondary schools, use test scores as a criterion. St Ronan's is non-grammar while St Ronan's is grammar, however.
The plan is to review the situation regularly. It is also the Church's desire to rid all its schools of academic selection completely.
If tests based on where children live proves to be fraught with perils and challenges, it might happen sooner.