Education news

Cap grammar places to boost secondary schools, Chris Donnelly urges

St John the Baptist PS principal Chris Donnelly. Picture by Hugh Russell

PLACES at grammar schools should be capped to help non-selective colleges thrive, a principal has urged.

Chris Donnelly, head of St John the Baptist PS in west Belfast, said academic selection continues to have profound consequences.

He was speaking last night at an event at Féile an Phobail - Underachievement: Causes, Costs and Challenges.

Almost four in every 10 pupils leaving primary education now transfer into grammars. The system was originally designed for the academically top performing 30 per cent.

Mr Donnelly told the event at St Mary's University College that non-grammar schools are "the heavy-lifters".

They have the highest proportion of poor and academically weak pupils as well as the most children with special needs or behaviour problems.

He added that non-grammar enrolment figures revealed "an annual battle for survival".

While grammars all reach capacity, with some trawling as deep as the lowest 11-plus grade to fill their places, many secondary schools have dozens of empty desks. Fewer pupils means less funding.

Mr Donnelly proposed that in the absence of academic selection being removed, an immediate measure that could improve overall performance would be to cap grammar enrolment and allow non-grammars to grow.

"Educational underachievement as a theme is recognised globally, and we have much to learn from the experiences of others," Mr Donnelly said.

"There are many factors which contribute towards making the educational experience a more enlightening and successful one for some children than others, including family, community and school-based factors, as well as decisions taken at a structural level by governments.

"We need to understand these more fully and devise plans - at government and school level - to effectively counter the inhibiting factors.

"Parents must continue to be educated about how they can and must support their children to provide them with the best opportunities in life, and this is a job for the government as well as schools."

The "peculiar nature" of the education system - academic selection - has had, and continued to have, profound consequences, Mr Donnelly said.

"Moving away from selection will not eradicate underachievement but the evidence overwhelmingly illustrates that it acts to exacerbate the divide in our society between the highest and lowest performers educationally when compared with other societies.

"The greatest predictor of educational achievement continues to be relative poverty. A NI-specific strategy to tackle educational underachievement must therefore be informed by a desire to address the reality of greater levels of deprivation in Catholic communities in NI whilst also effectively addressing working-class Protestant male underachievement."

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