‘Agreement on this issue is urgent and would signal that politics in Northern Ireland has come of age.’ – Cardinal Brady
The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) today released its policy statement on Post-Primary Transfer for Catholic Schools. The following is the address of Cardinal Seán Brady at the press conference in St Patrick’s High School, Keady:
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education represents and speaks for the Trustees of the 550 Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland. I am delighted to open this Press Conference on their behalf.
The Commission is a recently established body. It was formed to bring about greater coherence and unity to all Catholic managed schools, to manage change and to interface with government in terms of education policy. On behalf of all the Trustees I would like to thank the members of the Commission for their leadership in seeking to build a constructive and united response to the vexed issue of Post-Primary Transfer.
I would also like to thank each of you, the members of the Press and guests for being here. I realise it is a bit of a journey for many of you to come to County Armagh! I am sure as you appreciate the surroundings of this excellent High School and the wonderful countryside you will agree that it was very worthwhile.
I would like to thank Mr McAleavey and all the staff of St Patrick’s High School for making their school available to us this morning. In my experience the excellent standards and warm hospitality we have witnessed here this morning have become by words for St. Patrick’s, High School in Keady. They are the hallmarks of any school committed to an ethos based on the Gospel. St. Patrick’s High School is but one example of the many outstanding all-ability post-primary schools in Northern Ireland providing an excellent standard of education and a full range of future gateways for children. It one significant model for the future and as the Commission will say – there will be a variety of models.
In the current debate about the future of Post-Primary transfer it is important that parents do not to buy into the idea that only one type of school provides a quality education. As they reflect on the policy to be announced by the Commission this morning it is important that parents play a part in critically examining any assumption they may have about which schools can provide an excellent education for their child.
The Church’s involvement in education goes back ultimately to the mission the Church received from Christ to go and teach all nations. Education has been central to the Church’s mission since the beginning. It has found different expression in different eras. As Bishop Leo O’Reilly, recently pointed out, ‘we had the monastic schools in the middle of the first millennium here in Ireland. We had the great scholastic centres of learning in Europe in the middle ages. Even today there are few countries in the world – outside of totalitarian states – where there is not a vibrant Catholic schools sector.’
Every education system operates out of a particular philosophy of education. The Catholic philosophy of education is rooted in an understanding of the human person as someone of enormous dignity and potential. This dignity and destiny are rooted in the belief that each person is created in the image of God. Each person has an infinite value and an eternal destiny. Each one is invited into fellowship with Christ who came ‘that we might have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10).
As the 2008 pastoral letter Vision 08 of the Irish Bishops states: “What is entailed here is not only the fullest human flourishing in this world but a hope for the world to come.” We believe that human life is too precious to be reduced to purely material or merely present concerns. It is about the big picture and about a hope that gives meaning and purpose to all our human strivings.
Community is a key element in this vision of education. Indeed as the Pastoral continues ‘education can be carried out authentically only in a relational and community context’.
Research on the Catholic schools in the English speaking world, by Matthew Feheny, points to their academic success but stresses the key characteristic is the ‘atmosphere of pastoral care and a deliberate attempt to create community’. This research is corroborated by mainland European experience. Feheny’s research founds that Catholic schools “were especially successful in creating school communities out of educational institutions. This success is even more striking with children in deprived communities” (From Ideal to Action, pp. 211, 217).
Building community, acting in a spirit of interdependence and solidarity, these are defining characteristics of Catholic education which derive directly from Gospel values. They oblige everyone involved in the mission and provision of Catholic education to be part of a shared concern for all children irrespective of background or ability. It involves every Catholic school having a particular concern for those who are most disadvantaged in their area.
This responsibility on Catholic schools to work in a unified way in providing a Gospel based system of education was a core value recognised by the Working Group set up by the Commission in February. This Working Group was chaired by Mr Matthew Murray and represented Catholic secondary and grammar schools in Northern Ireland. It was set up to recommend principles for a united way forward for Catholic Schools in response to the potential for the disorder and chaos of an unregulated system of Post-Primary Transfer here in Northern Ireland.
On behalf of the Commission and the Trustees I would like to thank Mr Murray and the members of the Working Group for their excellent work and the speed with which they brought forward their agreed report. They did so in challenging circumstances and identified core principles as the basis for a united way forward. The report submitted by the Working Group to the Commission has provided an invaluable framework around which the Trustees, through the Commission, can now announce their policy on this issue.
Let me also say that I recognise the widespread concerns of parents about the uncertain and disruptive situation we face if a regulated system of transfer is not made available. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Working Group on a unified response from Catholic schools as a means of addressing these concerns. It is important that the family of Catholic Schools act in a spirit of interdependence and solidarity in responding to this and other educational issues.
In recent weeks I headed a delegation from the Commission at meetings with the four largest political parties in the Assembly and at a hearing of the Assembly Education Committee on the draft Education Bill. I was very impressed with the serious and constructive way in which every party and the Education Committee engaged with the important issues of concern we raised with them on this matter.
It was evidence to me of the value of having a local administration with locally elected representatives who have first hand knowledge of these issues. It is in that spirit that I make a particular appeal to all of the political parties in the Executive and Assembly to work to find an agreed legislative framework for post-primary transfer for all children in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. With good will and a spirit of compromise, keeping the interests of children and parents foremost in our considerations, an agreed way forward has to be possible. Such agreement would send a strong signal to the whole community that local politicians can bring principled and constructive solutions to fundamental issues of concern to our society.
And with that, I would now like to hand you over to Bishop Donal McKeown, Chair of the Commission, to outline the policy of the Commission.
Post-Primary Transfer Policy for Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) [i], represents the Trustees of all Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland. It has considered the unanimous recommendations of the Working Group [ii] representing our Secondary and Grammar schools established to offer advice on future transfer procedures for pupils wishing to enrol in Catholic Post-Primary schools at age eleven. In light of these recommendations and our preference for a regulated system of transfer provided by the Department of Education, NICCE presents the following as its policy on Post-Primary Transfer for Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland:
• The Commission restates its position, accepted by the Working Group, that the current system of academic selection at age eleven is no longer an appropriate way for children to transfer to Post-Primary school. Therefore it is our view as Trustees that all schools in the Catholic sector should move to an alternative form of transfer as soon as possible and by no later than 2012, in time for the full implementation of the Entitlement Framework [iii] in 2013.
• Catholic Schools should operate in a spirit of interdependence and solidarity. When making key decisions all schools should take into account the effect that those decisions will have on other schools in the same area. New structural arrangements at local level being worked out in the context of the Post Primary Review [iv] should seek to put in place the best possible arrangements for all young people. These will be developed for each area over the next few years and may lead to a variety of arrangements consistent with local circumstances. This would not be a one size fits all approach.
• All children should have access to a high quality Catholic education from 11-19, regardless of the school to which they transfer at age eleven. Some schools currently provide only for pupils at age 11-16. Some are unable to provide the range of subjects that will be necessary under the Entitlement Framework. Future arrangements should provide access for all young people to an 11-19 education through reorganisation, federation or collaboration between schools, and between schools and Further Education Colleges, to address local needs and to achieve the best outcomes for children.
• All Catholic Post-Primary schools should give full consideration to the guidelines on admissions criteria issued by the Minister for Education on 2nd Feb 2009 [v][vi]. When the final version of these guidelines is issued by the Department of Education following consultation, all Catholic Post-Primary schools are urged to implement them as fully as possible.
• In the absence of a regulated system of Post-Primary Transfer, the Commission accepts the view of the Working Group that an academic test may be appropriate in the short-term, particularly for those Post-Primary schools which are oversubscribed. Those Catholic schools which opt to make use of such testing should ensure these tests:
o Do not discriminate against any groups of children;
o Will avoid children having to sit a multiplicity of tests;
o Will be used for only a very limited period of time;
o Will not involve any distortion of the statutory KS1&2 curriculum and;
o Will focus on English and Mathematics in the context of the KS2 curriculum.
• The Commission is committed to ongoing dialogue with the other educational sectors and with all who are concerned with the future education of young people in Northern Ireland. It does so in the hope that the Catholic sector can contribute to a growing consensus on the way forward for all young people.
• With others the Commission recommends that the Minister consider the establishment of a time bound Working Party of educationalists and other relevant experts to find an agreed solution on the post-primary transfer for all schools in Northern Ireland, taking particular account of the emerging needs of the economy and our society.
The Commission will publish a more detailed commentary on this policy and its practical implications for all concerned in the near future.