Leona O'Neill: Our secondary schools are not second best in the educational stakes

In the wake of this year's transfer tests being cancelled, Northern Ireland Education Minister Peter Weir has angered some teachers and parents by implying that secondary schools somehow limit the opportunities of children. As Leona writes, nothing could be further from the truth...

Education Minister Peter Weir has angered secondary school teachers with remarks on Twitter

LAST week was some week for education. We had the transfer test cancelled, which – as is the way – some parents were happy about and some furious over.

The debate brought up some very interesting views from across the board. None more than our education minister, Peter Weir, who poured petrol over the already fiery issue by, some said, implying that secondary schools provided a 'second class' option for pupils.

The implication came from a tweet the minister put out explaining the cancellation. He wrote: "AQE have decided, due to Covid-19, that the transfer tests cannot proceed this year. This severely limits parental choice & children's opportunities, with disappointment for many children & parents. I will continue to work with all stakeholders in these difficult circumstances."

He later back-pedalled and apologised for what he described as a "clumsy" tweet, posting: "Great opportunities exist throughout our education system, thru both selective and non selective schools, all of which have produced the best of Northern Ireland. Once opportunity to be considered for entry to any school is denied, in any sector, it is a denial to opportunity 4 all."

It came in the week that most schools were still holding – in the middle of a global pandemic – online open nights in order to entice pupils. And principals of non-grammar schools didn't hold back.

Jackie Bartley, head teacher at St Genevieve's High School in Belfast, tweeted: "Rest assured minister I lead a non-selective school that certainly does NOT limit opportunities. We ensure our girls aspire to be their best and fulfil their aspirations."

Martine Mulhern, principal of St Cecilia's College in Derry also responded: "This year we were named 'UK Secondary School of the Year' but here in N Ireland our education system will always deem us 'second class' because we are a secondary school and not grammar! Described by our own Education Minister as 'limiting children's opportunities' – HOW DARE HE!"

The minister not only insulted non-selective schools with his 'clumsy' words, but also the students who have walked their corridors, who have dreamed of success, been nurtured in that success and have gone on to do great things.

All of our schools here in Northern Ireland are exceptional. Our teachers, grammar and non-grammar, are inspirational in their endeavours to lead pupils to be the very best that they can be. Our children should not be made to feel like failures at 11 if they do not enter grammar school.

Sadly, this is a widely held, mind-boggling and frankly narrow-minded view. I remember speaking to a group of women about the transfer test. I said that we had decided to send our son to a non-grammar school as we had looked at their ethos, spoke to the teachers, had a look around and thought that he would most definitely thrive there. We were excited about him going. Then one of the women said: "Oh well, the world will always need street sweepers and bin men."

Not that there is anything wrong with either profession, but it took all of my strength not to dump the luke-warm cappuccino I was holding over her smug head.

My 11-year-old child had not yet chosen his profession, but because of the school he was going to, someone who thought they knew it all had chosen it for him. He went to the non-selective school he wanted to go to, thrived in the supportive and nurturing environment there and did very well.

If people would look beyond the end of their nose, they would see that our non-selective schools are turning out the most exceptional and passionate students who are setting the world on fire daily in whatever field they choose. Writing them off is simply not an option.

Lessons need to be learned here.

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