ST CATHERINE’S COLLEGE, ARMAGH
1 MARCH 2010
OPENING ADDRESS BY
CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
• The delivery of post primary education is about so, so much more than academic selection … [it is] about what will provide a better future for every child in our society – Cardinal Brady
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying how much we appreciate your presence here this morning. Your role in helping parents and other key stakeholders understand the range of issues facing education in Northern Ireland is critical. I appeal to you to do justice to the full truth of what is at issue here. Providing an education system in Northern Ireland fit for purpose in the 21st century. That is the challenge and it simply cannot be reduced to a narrow debate about academic selection or who is on one side or another of a political divide. There is so, so much more at stake.
As Trustees of Catholic schools we come to this and other questions as educationalists. Our vision of education is based on the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our primary concern is ensuring the best possible education for every child. For every child is made in the image and likeness of God. We all have a profound duty of care to every child in our society. We can only fulfil that duty if we take account of all of the issues which influence the quality of education and its future provision.
That is why society needs to re-dimension the debate about academic selection. We need to locate it in the wider context of all the challenges which confront education in Northern Ireland at this time. The debate cannot be confined to academic selection at age eleven.
For example, any effective reshaping of the future has to take account of the impact of the demographic downturn on the intake of secondary and grammar schools in every sector. The reality is that as school numbers go down some Grammar schools are effectively becoming all-ability schools. Should this be allowed to happen at the expense of resources, staffing and perhaps the very future of many existing secondary schools? Is a more strategic, inclusive collaborative solution not possible, one which takes account of the particular needs, infrastructure and resources of a local area? It is also a fact that many all-ability post-primary schools are also high performing schools in terms of academic results. We have to be honest and face this reality. We have to be just and fair to all schools.
Planning for a better future also has to take account of the obligations arising from the Department of Education’s Entitlement Framework. That Framework aims to provide access to a wider range of subjects for every pupil. Planning also has to take account of the Sustainable Schools policy which suggests that schools should operate with a minimum number of 500 pupils at age 11-16 and 100 at post-16. It has to take account of an area-based approach to planning and the duty on all schools to contribute to greater cohesion, integration and sharing.
In establishing the Post-Primary Review initiative, this is what the Catholic Trustees have sought to do, to take account of all the relevant issues. As far back as September 2006, the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) launched a comprehensive review of Catholic-managed post-primary education across Northern Ireland. The Review has involved post-primary Principals, Boards of Governors and Trustees working together to identify options or proposals for the future delivery of high quality post-primary Catholic education in sixteen project areas.
Supported by the Department of Education the review has been closely linked to work being developed with other educational partners. It is the culmination of the efforts of the Catholic sector to contribute strategically to the challenges facing all who deliver and manage the education of our children.
The review has been guided at all times by the Commission’s Core Principles. These principles state that any arrangements for post-primary education should:
• Optimise high quality education provision and excellence in outcomes for all pupils;
• Actively promote justice, reconciliation, mutual understanding, solidarity, inclusive communities and be part of a genuinely pluralist provision of education;
• Contribute to the provision of education choices for parents and pupils; and
• Be the result of transparent consultative processes.
It is in keeping with this commitment to transparent consultative processes that today we are launching a comprehensive consultation exercise on the preliminary proposals from each of the sixteen project areas. This is the widest consultation exercise ever undertaken by the Catholic Trustees on the future of Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland. We want the consultation to be as inclusive as possible. We want to hear from parents, pupils, teachers, other school staff members and Boards of Governors. It is particularly important that local Catholic Primary Schools make their views known on the proposals.
The document you have received this morning called Education For All: Shaping the future of post-primary Catholic Education, will be distributed widely to the Principals of all Catholic Primary and Post-Primary schools in Northern Ireland along with the project proposals for their particular area. The Principals will be asked to ensure that all staff members receive a copy and all parents of children at their school. The decisions we reach at the conclusion of this consultation process will shape the delivery of Catholic education in Northern Ireland for decades to come. We especially wish parents to engage and consider the options and give their views on these important issues.
Critically, we wish to hear from other educational stakeholders and from other schools in the local areas for which each proposal has been developed. Plans are being made to ensure that they too have an opportunity to comment on the proposals and to shape the outcome of this process. This includes the views of Teacher Unions and the Education and Library Boards. The material will also be available on the web site of the Post Primary Review Project and of the Catholic Commission so that the wider public can contribute their views.
I want to stress this morning that this is an initial consultation and it is an inclusive consultation. The Catholic Trustees want to explore with all other school providers how we can co-operate in new and creative ways to provide the best possible education for every child – for all children – in each local area. We have been and will continue throughout this process to consult beyond the Catholic network of schools and to explore new ways of sharing resources, facilities and personnel at local level to ensure that the best possible education for all children in our society is achieved.
This marks a very significant development in our approach to the future of Catholic Education in Northern Ireland. It signals our commitment to consider new ways of building relationships which contribute to good relations based on the Christian virtues of good neighbourliness, mutual respect and reconciliation. I believe an exciting and better future can be achieved if we approach the challenges which confront all schools in Northern Ireland with a sense of responsibility for each other and for every child in our society. New models of provision can be achieved without compromise to cherished values and the right to schools with a particular denominational ethos. The Catholic Trustees are signalling today their willingness to think outside the box on these issues and to engage in wide ranging discussion about how together we can provide the best education for every child in Northern Ireland.
It is in this spirit, that I also take this opportunity to appeal to our locally elected representatives. I appeal to our politicians to move beyond the narrow focus on academic selection and to engage in a wider, more inclusive discussion about how together we can provide the best possible system of education for every child in Northern Ireland. You cannot provide a viable answer to the question of academic selection without considering a range of other issues, including the dramatic impact of the demographic downturn on existing secondary schools as well as sustainability and new curriculum entitlements at a local level.
Allowing parents and others to believe that this issue is only about the future of grammar schools is a disservice to them and to the complexity of the issues involved. We need a more mature, responsible, inclusive and wide-ranging debate. The delivery of post primary education is about so, so much more than academic selection.
In establishing the Post-Primary Review and initiating an inclusive and wide ranging discussion about provision in each local area, I hope that the Catholic Trustees have made a contribution to moving the current debate on to a wider and more helpful level about what will provide a better future for every child in our society.
As is pointed out in the document you have received, Catholic Education for All, our objective is to provide solutions in local areas which will help schools deliver several core benefits to all pupils in that area. These include:
• Opportunities for every young person to develop their full potential;
• The opportunity for every child in a Catholic School to receive a quality education in modern, well-equipped facilities;
• Increased access for all pupils to high quality academic and applied educational pathways;
• An effective transition from primary through post-primary to third level education and employment in the 21st century;
• A network of quality schools guaranteeing access to a curriculum that will meet the needs of all pupils within the context of the Entitlement Framework.
• Effective collaborative links with other education providers through Area Learning Communities and new, creative structures of mutual support and sharing.
This can only be achieved if we address all of these issues together. It will not be achieved without a significant shift in the way our facilities are currently organised, managed and maintained. Determining the best route through that change is the fundamental objective of this consultation process and of the Post-Primary Review.
In concluding, let me say, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, how grateful we are to Mrs Deirdre McDonald, Principal of St. Catherine’s College and to her staff for making the College and its facilities available to us this morning. St. Catherine’s College is an outstanding all-ability Catholic Post-Primary school. It is a good example of the partnership between Catholic Primary and Post-primary schools, and between Catholic schools and other schools in the local area which as Trustees we want to encourage into the future. St. Catherine’s has also made the journey from a system of academic selection at age eleven to all-ability post-primary education. In 1973 the Sacred Heart Secondary Intermediate School and the Sacred Heart Grammar School amalgamated into the all-ability school we are in today, St. Catherine’s College, Convent of the Sacred Heart. It has done so with outstanding success. For example, last year alone no fewer than five students from St. Catherine’s achieved top marks in Northern Ireland in this summer’s CCEA examinations. Just as importantly, pupils in this school are encouraged to develop their full range of gifts and talents and to celebrate and respect the particular talents of others. Through the establishment of a highly successful co-educational Irish medium stream St Catherine’s has also played a major role in providing new forms of education provision for a wider catchment area than just its own.
Dividing schools and pupils into academic and non-academic does not do justice to the complex way in which we now know children progress and develop. There are other schools besides Grammar schools which can provide an excellent academic education for children.
Finally, we have to face the reality that the demographic downturn and the increased demands of the curriculum mean that no school can stand in splendid isolation from others in the search for a system of post-primary provision which values and gives an equal opportunity to every child in our society.
Thank you for listening so patiently. I now invite my colleagues on the panel to address any questions you may wish to ask.