All-abilities college given huge enrolment boost
AN all-abilities college appears to have benefited from plans by nearby grammar schools to ask children 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.
The changes are being made first in Kilkeel while there are proposals 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.
The Department of Education has confirmed it approved extra places for a college that sits half-way between the Kilkeel and Downpatrick schools.
St Malachy's High School in Castlewellan has been given a temporary variation to allow it to accept 34 pupils above its normal admissions number.
Parents told the Irish News that many were unwilling to force their children to sit tests to win places at comprehensive schools elsewhere.
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 (52) will then be "available to children from the wider region by means of academic selection".
Children travel from far and wide to attend St Louis from towns including Newcastle, Castlewellan, Rathfriland, Newry and Warrenpoint.
Those living in Castlewellan fall outside the named parishes and have to take entrance exams.
Given the choice of attending a comprehensive school in their home town, or one further away that requires an entrance test, some told the Irish News they took the local option.
St Malachy's typically can take up to 164 pupils a year. It admitted 141, 145 and 156 in the last three years but this time it required 34 places over its admissions number.
"There is no grammar stream within the (Kilkeel) school, therefore the pupils are sitting a test into an academic all-ability school," one parent told the Irish News.
"These are people who would have sent their children to Kilkeel or Downpatrick schools but due to the uncertainty, they are now choosing St Malachy's."
Inspectors previously noted that St Malachy's usually attracts pupils from a wide catchment area. Pupils are also educated in a Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD) unit.
It also has an Irish-medium stream, which won praise for promoting pupils' language skills, making "curricular content more accessible to them and enhances their learning experiences".