Education Minister John O’Dowd’s unilateral decision to close Enniskillen Collegiate and Portora Royal School, both state Grammar schools, has left the people of Enniskillen questioning the motivations of all involved.
This follows closely the decision to close Lisnaskea High, where again people were left scratching their heads at the decision.
Both the Collegiate and Portora are popular with parents and pupils, academically successful and operating well within their means. In addition to the excellent academic reputation of the Collegiate it is worth noting the excellent fight which the Principal, Elizabeth Armstrong, has put up against the closure of the school. Across Fermanagh it is recognised that the Collegiate is much more than just another school – it is a key part of the community. Those who choose to educate their children outside of the maintained sector will mourn its passing. It should be noted that the Collegiate is the more academically successful of the two schools and is firmly against the merger, while Portora is a supporter of the merger with the assumption any new school would be at their current location. Both use academic selection for year 8 admissions. Given that, the question that should be asked is how has a Minister gone on a solo run, without executive approval, to proceed with these closures? What happened to the much vaunted claim by the DUP that under the St Andrew’s Agreement that they had put a stop to ministers taking decisions without executive approval?
Well, it clearly didn’t work and the veto was useless.
The DUP brought a petition to the floor of the Assembly and gave Mr Speaker, newly DUP endorsed Mitchel McLaughlin, his first opportunity to demonstrate his objectivity by referring the decision back to the executive – the Sinn Fein speaker refused it saying that it was not of ‘public importance’. More importantly it transpires, that UUP leader Mike Nesbitt did not give his support – by failing to contend the matter was indisputably of public importance, Mike Nesbitt gave the Sinn Fein Speaker the excuse he was looking for to protect the Sinn Fein closure plan.
The Sinn Fein desire to end academic selection is to end the Grammar school sector in Northern Ireland. Essentially, they have privatised academic selection – which remains popular with parents due to the standard of education through Grammar schools. The closure of Portora and the Collegiate are of public importance and should not be treated as a localised, parochial issue only relevant to Enniskillen. It shows that even if you operate a successful school and are ticking all the boxes – that with a stroke of the pen you are expendable.
On the transfer test issue, as well as not having one state test for all pupils, we have two private tests largely operating along religious lines. While the 11 plus had its flaws, it was open to all to sit, and admittance to a school was based on sitting the same test. Now, we have schools accepting one or the other, and in some cases accepting both and deviating from best practice.
When we talk about shared education it needs to be more than a slogan. Sinn Fein show no intention of reinstating academic selection, therefore there needs to be agreement and acceptance of one test – that test should be the more robust and desirable AQE test. This would ensure a level playing field for all seeking admission to Grammar schools across Northern Ireland and an opportunity for truly shared education.
Richard is vice chairman of TUV; and an advisor to Jim Allister MLA.