Northern Ireland news

Catholic principals welcome bishop's school merger comments

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown

CATHOLIC school heads have welcomed comments from a bishop that merging grammar and non-grammars is the "right thing".

The Catholic Principals Association (CPA) said it was "wholeheartedly supportive" of statements made by Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown on the proposed merger of four Co Down schools.

Bishop McKeown was emailed by parents concerned about plans involving De La Salle High, St Mary's High and St Patrick's Grammar in Downpatrick and St Columba's College in Portaferry.

A consultation is due to end next week.

There are numerous options, one that would see the creation of two 800-pupil schools while another that proposes creating one large 1,600 pupil college in Downpatrick.

It is understood any new school would not use 11-plus style entrance tests.

If a single school was opened in Downpatrick, pupils' daily journey from Portaferry would involve a ferry across Strangford Lough. Some parents have already pledged to fight for the future of St Columba's, warning a merger could be detrimental.

Others emailed Bishop McKeown, who is the chairman of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, to say an amalgamation would "destroy" the grammar school.

He replied that education which did not rely on academic selection would benefit everyone.

If some people chose not to go with the proposed way forward, he said, that was their choice and added "that does not mean that trustees should fail to do the right thing".

The CPA, which represents the views of about 230 Catholic primary and secondary schools, has now backed Bishop McKeown.

It said there were no moral, ethical, educational or social grounds for continuing academic selection and rejection at ages 10 and 11.

Non-selective schools had already evolved very successfully from mergers, the group said, and very few, if any, of the dire predictions by some had been realised in fact.

"It is time for authorities to identify who or what agencies or interest groups are the greatest barriers to wholesale enactment of their stated principles. Heightened language and dire prediction by some should not overshadow reasonable and reasoned arguments of others," the CPA added.

"Let us be clear. Many, many principals, teachers, parents, children, local communities, governors, primary and post-primary schools do not support selection. Those that CPA represents are just as important as any other interest group or single institution. No institution is free from responsibility to the greater good of the surrounding Catholic family of schools.

"That some in Co Down foresee and forecast a potential drift to other sectors in the event of reform is not at all surprising. We in CPA have listened to these veiled threats for years. If some parents feel they must abandon Catholic schools in order to avail of a selective system that is regrettable but it is also their choice. Some of them are doing it in any case."

The "right thing", the CPA said, involved decision-making for the greater number of pupils.

"No truly Catholic system can continue a failed, self-fulfilling prophecy engendering and reinforcing inequality and stark social division."

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