Merger plan views sought

Merger plan views sought

11 September 2019

PARENTS of children at three post primary schools in Downpatrick at the heart of a controversial merger proposal are being urged to make their views public.

The Education Authority has launched a formal consultation on the merger of St Patrick’s Grammar, De La Salle and St Mary’s High schools, with a planned new 1,600-pupil super school opening as early as 2021.

Two months have been set aside for the public consultation, with any final decision on the merger taken by either a Stormont education minister or Department of Education Permanent Secretary.

Education Authority (EA) officials have confirmed that the Downpatrick post-primary project board had submitted its plans to establish a “a new co-educational, 11-19, voluntary grammar school for 1,600 pupils.”

The project board is made up of members from the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools (CCMS), Down and Conor Diocese and the De La Salle Congregation, with the latter trustees at all three schools. The proposed new school will also be in the trusteeship of the De La Salle Congregation.

St Patrick’s Grammar has maintained its opposition to the merger proposal since it was muted in 2017, while both De La Salle and St Mary’s support the merger.

Mr Joe McCann, St Patrick’s Grammar principal, said he is “disappointed” that an apparent EA source had broken the news of the merger plan locally before his and the other schools were formally notified.

St Patrick’s parent body — The Parents and Friends Association (PFA) — said that it will “vehemently fight these proposals with every means necessary, through the courts and, unfortunately, in the media”.

PFA spokesperson, Cormac Artt, criticised the EA on how the news was leaked ahead of the schools being notified last Thursday and the argument that local children will be educated together and the likelihood of capital funding for a single-site school build.

Mr Artt continued:  “This proposal cites an enrolment of 250 pupils and alleges that this yearly intake will be made up of up to 40% who will be admitted by academic selection. 

“However, the census figures suggest that if all those who live within a three-mile radius and those  for whom the school is the nearest Catholic grammar are admitted automatically without sitting the GL entrance assessment, there will be very few, if any, places for those applicants seeking admission via academic selection.”

Mr Artt suggested that the outworking of this means that the rural communities and primary schools who have been an integral part of the grammar school’s 85-year history, will no longer have a place in this proposed super school, including those in Teconnaught, Loughinisland, Strangford, Kilclief, Dundrum, the Ards peninsula, Castlewellan and Newcastle. 

“The choice for boys in these areas who wish an academically selective education will therefore be travel to Newry or Belfast to try to secure a selective grammar school place in Catholic schools  that are already heavily oversubscribed,” he said.

“The alternative for those who wish to keep the tradition and connection with Downpatrick will be to attend the state academically selective, Down High School. Aside from the injustice of this on the rural communities, is the impact this will have on families.”

While the EA said that the proposals have “already been subject to formal stakeholder consultation with parents, staff, governors and pupils,” Mr Artt disputed that.

“Parents of students from St Patrick’s Grammar requested a meeting with the De La Salle Trustees in April to discuss the Trustees’ vision going forward. They finally responded in June by refusing to meet the parents citing ’it is not clear what, if anything, will be gained by a meeting,’ which clearly makes the parents think that they do not care about the pupils of the school where they are Trustees. 

“The Board of Governors, staff and parents are overwhelmingly opposed to this proposal and for the De La Salle Trustees, who are the only stakeholder supporting this vision, to refuse to speak to the current parents is a disgrace.”

De La Salle principal, Ciaran Maguire, said he was “delighted” to see the proposal going to full public consultation.

He told the Recorder: “It’s been a long time coming. I am reassured now that the families of the greater Downpatrick area will have an opportunity to finally get behind the vision to secure the town as a model of good practice, where children’s education is a priority.

“The De La Salle Congregation have been working on bringing post primary education in Downpatrick into the 21st century. In 2002, they first proposed that St Patrick’s Grammar should become a co-educational school. 

“The Department of Education at the time wanted to see a proposal that was reflective and inclusive of all schools in the Downpatrick area. That advice was taken by the De La Salle congregation and they have been working, in partnership, on a solution to ensure that all children in the greater Downpatrick area have an education system that they can be proud of.”

Mr Maguire said the origin of the transfer test “was a solution to a problem back then”, suggesting the problem is different now and a new solution is needed.

He added: “What we need now for our children is something radical and exciting for all those involved. If we are the child-centred schools we say we are, then this is undeniably the right thing to do, not just for my pupils, but for the St Mary’s girls and St Patrick’s boys.”

Mr Maguire contended that while some may see the proposal as “as an attempt to wipe out a school’s history and tradition, it’s an opportunity for them to continue their great work in preparing our children for life.”

He said that it will cater for all children from the local feeder schools, without the fear of having to sit and possibly fail a test.

Mr Maguire added: “We are removing barriers; those same barriers that our children currently struggle with, the fear and anxiety of not fitting in, not being good enough. I urge all parents to get behind this proposal, your opinion matters and should count.”

Welcoming the proposed merger, St Mary’s High School principal, Ms Rosemary McLaughlin, said “it has the ability to deliver”.

She added: “We are very proud of our school as a centre of excellence and we look forward to this new opportunity of proposed change to serve all young people.”