Bishop’s comments have ‘astounded’ PFA

SIR, — The Red High PFA has been left astounded by the latest communication from Bishop Donal McKeown, Chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

Bishop McKeown, has in recent weeks regularly communicated with concerned parents about the proposals for the reconfiguration of post-primary education in East Down. 

In some of his earlier letters he wrote: “The merging of four schools in Downpatrick would be the right thing…. we have already successfully moved away from the process of ‘academic selection’ in East Antrim, Coleraine/Portstewart, Strabane, Omagh, Armagh, Lurgan — and are moving in East Down…. the most entrepreneurial part of Northern Ireland is an area between Bellaghy and Dungannon — where most pupils do not go to grammar schools…. we need those with creative skills to stay locally, not more professionals who study away and stay away…. if some people choose not to go with the proposed way forward, that is their choice, that does not mean that Trustees should fail to do the right thing.”

Now in his latest letter to a parent of a Year 8 student at St Patrick’s Grammar School, the Bishop has distanced himself from these statements and in his own words said: “I refused and continue to refuse to comment on the East Down situation as it is none of my business”.

As the chair of the CCMS, the Bishop presides over the seminal activities of the Council as set out in Articles 142-146 and Schedule 8 of the 1989 Education Reform (NI) Order, with the primary objective of raising standards in Catholic Maintained schools.

For the Bishop to now state that proposed changes to post-primary education in Downpatrick is none of his business is baffling.

The Bishop’s comments are also contradictory to those of Archbishop Eamon Martin, who has been quoted extensively, expressing grave concern for the increasing numbers of Catholic children no longer attending Catholic schools.

It has become abundantly clear that the Catholic Church, which is driving this process, needs to be upfront and honest about its real intention for Catholic education across Northern Ireland.

If its overall objective is to do away with academic selection, then why has there been no movement from urban diocesan grammar schools to amalgamate with their non-selective neighbours?

If creating large Catholic schools, which are in all but name comprehensive is the objective, then the lessons of this failed experiment in England, which has done nothing more than allow private education to flourish, should be heeded.

During the consultation, it has become obvious that the Catholic Church has been lacking in its leadership of the process, is confused about its position and appears to lack a moral compass to do what is right by our children.

Leadership is about being honest, showing self-awareness, having integrity, building trust, taking responsibility, providing effective communication, being approachable and above all else, setting the right example. Our evidence to date, in our communications with the Catholic Church would suggest otherwise.

Under the Government ‘Code of Conduct on Consultation’ there are seven key criteria laid out to help improve the transparency, responsiveness and accessibility of consultations.

 While the CCMS-led consultation process on the future of post-primary education in Downpatrick and the surrounding areas has fallen down on most of the criteria, it is the third of these which highlights how shambolic their attempts have been to date.

It states: “Clarity of scope and impact consultation documents should be clear about the consultation process, what is being proposed, the scope to influence and the expected costs and benefits of the proposals.”

The lack of information and poor and inaccurate quality of what was made available is nothing short of insulting to the pupils, teachers and parents who are in the direct firing line of the proposed changes.

Despite repeated requests to the CCMS and De La Salle Congregation for additional information, we have been met with a deafening silence, and the lack of evidence to support their proposal is contemptible.

It is also extremely worrying, if not sinister, that consultation documentation, as referred to in last week’s Down Recorder, has been shared with some of the schools concerned but not all.

If the consultation process is to be an open, honest and transparent process, then the CCMS and the De La Salle Congregation need to take a step back and rethink their approach to the sorry mess that they have got themselves into.

The Red High PFA would also like to clarify misleading comments in last week’s paper, which stated “the single school model proposed has been agreed in principle by the three Downpatrick schools”.

This is simply not true. While discussions on this issue took place as recently as 2016, in a letter to students, parents and staff on October 26 that year, the then principal, Sean Sloan, said:

“On June 17, 2016, our Trustees met with representatives of the Board of Governors and put forward a number of possible options for the future of Catholic Post-Primary education in Downpatrick. One of the options, amalgamation of all three schools to form one new school, was their (the Trustees) 

preferred option.

“The Trustees asked the governors to consider the proposals and forward any alternative models. Through a series of meetings, the Board of Governors has evaluated the proposals in detail and has rejected the amalgamation model as a future provision involving St Patrick’s Grammar School. They have since met with the Trustees and clarified that position.”

The PFA would also call upon our local politicians to think before they speak and resist the urge to make sweeping statements which are ill-founded and lack evidence or credibility.

While it is noteworthy that our MP should criticise the CCMS for their handling of the consultation process, it is utter folly for him to claim that the vast majority of people in South Down support the amalgamation.

This is complete and utter nonsense. Over 1,800 local people have signed a petition rejecting the CCMS-backed option. Almost 900 letters of opposition have been lodged from Red High alone, and hundreds 

more await the opportunity to have their say on this flawed proposal if a full public consultation ever goes ahead.

For some politicians to be muzzled from public comment and others to hide behind closed doors and avoid meetings, emails and phone calls until the final day of the consultation process is unforgivable and unbecoming of elected representatives. The electorate can decide how best to repay their actions at the next election.

The Red High PFA has been encouraged by support from post-primary principals in Derry, Belfast and Newry and it should not be taken as read that every principal in Northern Ireland is content with the suggested proposals in Downpatrick.

Despite the recent statement by the Catholic Principals Association (CPA), it should be noted that the Red High PFA are in agreement with them when it comes to ending academic selection. Where we differ, is that rather than approach this issue in a piecemeal and sector specific way, we request a level playing field. If there is to be an end to academic selection, then it should apply to all schools in Northern Ireland.

As has been admitted by the CCMS, the proposed option for Downpatrick does not end academic selection. Any new school would require those children from Newcastle, Dundrum, Castlewellan, Loughinisland, Crossgar, Annacloy, Saintfield and other Co Down towns and villages to undertake a transfer test to gain entry, while those in the immediate Downpatrick location would not. How is this fair and equitable? How is this bringing an end to the academic selection? How is this in the best interests of our children?

The core issue of the PFA remains and remains unanswered. How will a proposed ‘super school’ of 1,600+, split over three sites, improve the academic standing of our children?

With no single site able to accommodate them, no budget identified or any real hope of being identified for up to 15 years, a continuous disruption to pupils daily teaching, a fall in teacher morale, alongside a real threat of redundancies, a reduction in educational outcomes, what here suggests an improvement for our children’s education?

This isn’t about academic selection and any attempt to dress the current debate around selection is misleading and dishonest.

Yours etc,


Red High PFA chairman.