The public importance of Sinn Fein’s closure of the Collegiate and Portora

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.

, , , , ,

  • Ernekid

    As a Fermanagh man who has a lot of family who has been to the Collegiate (I’m a St. Michaels man myself) I’m dead against the amalgamation of the Collegiate and Portora. Both are excellent schools with proud heritages and merging them to make one mediocre school seems pointless. It makes even less sense as Devenish College has been crying out for a new school building for over a decade.

    This isn’t only an Enniskillen issue but a Fermanagh wide issue, kids from across the county are bused into Enniskillen every morning, It has a potential to create a lot of bad blood with in the county. It’s odd as well as Enniskillen Grammar Schools have been at the forefront of ‘shared education’ strategies. Collegiate girls came down the hill to St Micks to attend A Level Politics classes, Mount Lourdes Girls have been crossing the bridge to attend Portora’s Drama programmes for years. Portora Boat Club has been a fantastic cross community sports club as kids from all the schools in town have joined creating one of the most successful Junior Rowing clubs in Ireland.

    Portora has over 400 years of History to throw that away seems idiotic. Enniskillen’s model of education works pretty well. If you are making changes give Devenish College their new building.

  • barnshee

    Time for a reference to the Equality Commission

  • chrisjones2

    Its another Trojan Horse

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you for this informative posting, Ernekid. My own family were an established Fermanagh family for the first few centuries, and have long links with Portora. I have also met cultured people across the world who know of Portora through its links with Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, something that has meant that the Beckett festival has frequently showcased Portora in drawing an international visitor attendance.

  • nigel mckinney

    some of the people surely – I haven’t followed the issue in detail – but you surely aren’t fully recognising the position of those that do want the merger to go ahead. Are the Board of Governors of Portora not in touch with the needs of their current/future pupils and families and community? can you not accept that there might be a good argument for a merger in terms of better educational facilities and outcomes in the long term?

  • Ernekid

    This whole debacle seems like pot stirring from people in Belfast who’ve no idea what its like in Enniskillen, Enniskillen is fairly unique in the North as it’s a small town with quite good communal relations, You’d be hard pressed to find the sort of sectarianism that exists in other towns. Sure there is a minority of idiots but they exist everywhere.

    People in Fermanagh want to be able to send their kids to good schools of their choosing. Messing with the system is just going to create a lot of strife and tension between people. The CCMS would never let the Dept of Education mess around with St Michaels and Mount Lourdes in the same way that they’ve been messing around with Portora and the Collegiate.

    Portora is a key part of Fermanagh’s cultural history. If we start screwing around with it, it might endanger the success of the Beckett festival

  • aber1991

    “The CCMS would never let the Dept of Education mess around with St Michaels”

    DOES the CCMS control St Michael College, Enniskillen? Perhaps, you are referring to another school which is called after St Michael.

  • Ernekid

    Yeah, it does, Its owned by the diocese of Clogher. I went there, and they didn’t let us forget about it. Mass was a great way to get out of class.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Couldn’t agree more, Ernekid. I know Fermanagh well myself, I researched some of my work on 1688 “on the ground” over several years, and have given some talks. Most Fermanagh people Ive met have been pragmatic, with a good balance of mutual respect and the respect for traditions that marks the county.
    And yes, I cannot see other towns schools being treated in this cavalier manner.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Remember way back in 1983 trying to fight to save schools in Belfast against the tory champion of poll tax and water privatisation Chris Patten along with his partners in crime at the NIO and the Department of Education, how times change now we have the Green Tories (Sinn Fein) doing this dirty work for them !

  • Zeno

    I’m still trying to work out how you can become Minister for Education when you don’t have even a single GCSE. To be fair I couldn’t understand how a Farmer was put in charge of Health.

  • feismother

    Catholic voluntary grammar schools are not part of CCMS.

  • Richard Cairns

    There will obviously be a carrot dangled in front of both schools to be on board for a merger – a new building, better sports facilities etc. A key problem is that you have two successful schools hitting their admission targets. If you had two schools not performing well, not hitting their admissions, then you could make a case for a merger. Added in to that, you would have to take DE at their word that the promised new facilities would emerge.

  • Ernekid

    I don’t understand where they would build this new school. Portora is mostly listed buildings so it would be difficult to build facilities for the 700+ new girls that they’d have to accommodate at their existing site. Both are in residential areas so it’d be difficult to knock one building down.I’m not sure how it’d save money building a brand new school, when both schools have pretty good existing facilities.

    Why do they need co-ed schooling anyway? Several studies have shown that many pupils benifit from single gender education. Portora now take girls into their 6th form anyway so thats not the issue.

  • Dec

    This statement seems pertinent:
    “The governors of Portora Royal School welcome the minister’s approval of the development proposals and remain convinced that the decision will benefit all pupils in the controlled and voluntary sectors in Fermanagh while securing sustainable grammar school education in the county.

  • nigel mckinney

    Is there not a kneejerk conservatism at the heart of some of this – an unwillingness to countenance any change and to explore how collaboration might result in better provision? How is the decision maker to proceed when one school wants to proceed and one doesn’t – allow the power of veto over what might be a better solution for everyone. It would be good to hear from a pro merger poster with grasp of the detail on this one

  • nigel mckinney

    from Enniskillen myself – haven’t lived there since mid 1990s though. Good communal relations is a relative concept surely? I thought they declined and worsened from the early 70’s onwards with increased segregation in what were originally mixed housing estates, benign apartheid in terms of life and work. And of course despite high profile reconciliation efforts by churches and community leaders – the Enniskillen bomb was appalling in respect of community relations. I went to both St Michaels PS and subsequently St Michaels College. I recall once in my last year – some sort of engagement with Portora. I have very close friends from my time at both but not one close friend from Enniskillen who attended the main protestant schools in the town. Maybe and hopefully things have got better

  • Ernekid

    I’ve been out of St. Micks 5 years now, I’ve a few good mates who are Portorans and from the Integrated, I got to know them mostly through Rugby.

    Things have gotten better. I’m from Irvinestown though so it’s a bit different from living in Enniskillen in terms of communal relations.

  • Korhomme

    It’s often been said that girls do better, academically, in single-sex schools; and that boys do better, in terms of social adaptation, in mixed schools. The first assertion has been shown in other studies to be based on flawed methodology. (So what is education for?)

  • Joe_Hoggs

    If this is true it’s extremely disappointing and very damaging to community relations. Having listened to family members, friends and others from the Protestant side of the community over the past number of years express concern that there was a concentrated effort to close down all dare I use the phrase “Protestant Schools” thus isolating these communities and forcing them down the integrated path.

    First my own school went which was a shock, this went in the early 00’s and was a two site school called “The Duke of Westminster,” with only around 250 pupils on both sites it was not seen as viable. For me and others like me who had went to this school this decision was a body blow, no thought went into the fact that the DOWHS was a fantastic aid for people such as myself who were vastly underdeveloped scholastically coming from primary school, the lower numbers, good grades and high teaching standards that the school boasted greatly aided my development along with others. The logistics issues also posed a problem, many people going to these schools were from very rural locations such as Garrison, Lack and Pettigoe and the move resulted in a significant number of students having to travel 80 mile round trips to get to a school in Enniskillen. The promises at the time were that the Duke of Westminster would merge into Enniskillen high school and a new site would be built by 2004 to deal with the large school population that would need to temporarily be crammed into Enniskillen High School a site that consists of a number of rundown mobile classrooms.

    Two years ago there was the startling news that Lisnaskea High school was to close down and amalgamate with Enniskillen High School which was still awaiting on a new site to begin, however promises were given that if Lisnaskea amalgamated then the new school in Enniskillen would definitely be built. This move to close Lisnaskea HS was difficult to accept as the school was a decent size accommodating 150 people and being based in a heavily Nationalist area it was seen as important to maintaining the existence of the tiny Protestant population in the town and surround areas while at the same time boasting good educational standards and grades.
    Now with the Collegiate and Portora merging this leaves only two schools in Fermanagh catered for Protestant pupils and both have been located in Enniskillen. One can’t help but feel that those that said there were orchestrated attempts to destroy the Protestant schools in the county now seem well founded and I was one of those who felt that this was fantastical talk.

    Moves like this will create much distrust in the county and the small Protestant community feels very much under threat in Fermanagh, I would urge those in power to show that there is an understanding for the minority community and demonstrate real leadership – lets see an Ireland of equals.

  • nigel mckinney

    so the BoG of Portora must be complicit then in closing down protestant schools?
    How does the merging of two smaller schools into one larger one isolate the protestant community and force them down an integrated path?
    How is it damaging to community relations for the Portora BoG to seek to merge with the Collegiate?

  • Skinner

    There’s a lot of very woolly thinking on this post and the subsequent comments. The reality is:
    1. These are the two smallest grammar schools in NI
    2. The Collegiate needs a new science block and in general the facilities are poor.
    3. Portora has acres of space and the best site for a school in NI, but it needs a new gym and new teaching block
    4. Subjects offered in both schools are currently limited because of low numbers and neither meets sustainability criteria generally
    5. Both schools are oversubscribed but this is meaningless for grammar schools – if they weren’t oversubscribed something would be very wrong
    6.A dwindling pop’n has resulted in Portora (in particular) bleeding the high schools of numbers, hence Devenish (High) supports the merger so grammar numbers are cut back to historic levels and the high school can survive on a more equal footing
    7. Creating one strong grammar school and one strong high school shores up selection in Fermanagh – the allegation it is part of the SF plan to eradicate selection doesn’t stand to reason. O’Dowd has already granted the new build of Devenish on a separate site.
    8. The appeals to history and heritage from former pupils are understandable but children seeking an education tend not to care about that, and rightly so.

  • Ernekid

    It’s not really sustainable to keep open Secondary schools outside of Enniskillen. Schools like Skea High and St. Marys aren’t really filled with the sharpest tools in my experience. Fermanagh is a small county really, those that live up near Belleek really should cross the border to go to school in Ballyshannon, Those that go to Lisnaskea High can easily go to school in Town or in Fivemiletown.

    Seeing this as an attack on Fermanagh’s prods is paranoia, anyway you have to admit that the Protestant population is dwindling anyway due to changing demographics

  • Skinner

    Of course they are hitting their admissions targets – they are grammar schools, that is how the selection system works. It takes the top slice of *academically* gifted pupils and the secondary school gets the rest. Grammar schools and ordinary non-selective secondaries work either side of a hinge, which is why you have to consider the ongoing impact of keeping two grammars open i.e. numbers in the non-selective secondaries will remain too low.

  • Richard Cairns

    This is a forced merger – it is not about refusing to countenance any change. The Collegiate is firmly against it, consistently top of the league tables for GCSE and A-Level and is sustainable. If the argument was that it was taking pupils of a lesser caliber just to keep numbers up you would expect a downturn in academic output.

    In my own town of Antrim you should look at the dire state of secondary education provision that has been created due to mergers and promises of shiny new buildings for those that go along with DE requests. A case study in how not to operate if there ever was one.

  • chrisjones2

    WHen was competence or knowledge ever a requiremnet for public office?

  • nigel mckinney

    Skinner makes a very cogent argument for change – what’s your response to his/her post?

  • Richard Cairns

    1-3 granted. Therein lies the carrot being dangled – merge and have the new facilities that you need (have they been deliberately run down to get to this point? Denied funding in the past?)
    4-5 – 1st Preference applications have exceeded admission numbers. That will fluctuate year by year.
    6-7 – You cannot detach the issue of academic selection from school numbers. At any time you may have a smaller / bigger potential pupil base as it is down to birthrates. The Collegiate uses AQE and Portora uses GL – it does not follow that Collegiate’s (or indeed Portora’s) year 8 intake will apply as their 1st preference to the merged school. Parents may look further afield.

    Parental and pupil choice is key – the Collegiate in particular has done everything you would want a grammar school to do, yet it finds itself in this position.

  • Skinner

    1-3 No, they don’t get funding for new things because they don’t have the numbers to justify it. They don’t meet the sustainability criteria and you don’t pump money into things deemed unsustainable.
    4-5 Of course they do, that’s how selection works.
    6-7 You seem to be making my point, that the selective system means you have to consider the effect of lower overall birth rate on all schools in the area. That means considering making changes to a grammar school even if it is oversubscribed, because other schools in the area are suffering. The ‘I’m alright Jack’ approach taken by the Collegiate is selfish and not appropriate for a publically funded school. In any case it’s not alright – it needs a new science block and only got a ‘satisfactory’ rating in the latest inspection.
    Don’t see relevance of intake tests.
    Re your final point – if choice is key, how is a parental or pupil’s choice for a Fermanagh co-ed grammar being accommodated at the moment?

  • crockaleen

    It’s not so much that the Protestant population is dwindling, indeed more people ticked a ‘Protestant and other Christian’ denomination in the Fermanagh LGD in the 2011 Census than in that of 2001. It is more a case of the Roman Catholic population increasing in line with the county’s population as a whole, whereas the Protestant population is also growing, just at a much slower rate – so there are proportionally fewer. Of course, this could lead to an actual decline but there are no stats to prove it yet.

  • David Crookes

    Bearing in mind a thing that I heard the other day from someone at Stormont, I wonder if this ‘double closure’ goes on the left-hand pan of a stitched-up balance, and if the closure of St Mary’s goes on the right-hand pan.

  • aber1991

    “Well done Richard Cairns, at last someone is shining a light on what appears to the manipulation of education by the Sinn Fein for their own tribal ends.”

    How are the tribal ends of Sinn Fein being advanced by amalgamating 2 Protestant grammar schools?

  • gmd

    Correction regarding the ‘satisfactory’ rating in the latest inspection. Last month they received a follow up inspection which rated the school as good moving onto very good. Lets get the facts right.

  • puffen

    Obviously this site is obsessed with educational issues, something to note in future threads, I,e, children teaching children, St marys and Stranmillis should be one, end of story, otherwise Doctors, Nurses Firemen, Ambulance men, Plumbers , Bricklayers, Solicitors, Barristers, Joiners, HGV drivers, Merchant Seamen, Farmers, IT consultants, Accountants, Hospitality Workers, Thespians, Professional SportsPeople, Civil Servants, should be trained in Fenian and Prod training colleges, did I leave someone out, oh dear is this the wrong thread, maybe not.

  • Gingray

    Yup, overall population is going up, but that is more to do with increased life expectancy. Historically low birth rates and a tendency for those who leave not to return, means the younger protestant population is way down.

    When you have the two smallest grammar schools in Northern Ireland having over 20 classes with less that 8 pupils that is ineffective use of a finite resource. It’s not affordable.

    Long term our schooling system is buggered. 6 systems for ability and religion are stupid in a place this size.

  • Nevin

    Seaan [and Richard], have you not seen the hatchet-job carried out in Coleraine – with barely a cheep from the politicians? The MSM has done little more that publish propaganda tracts. We will now have the curious arrangement of a ‘non-selective’ Loreto College voluntary grammar adjacent to the new combined Coleraine Grammar voluntary grammar whose enrolment is limited to As and Bs in the transfer tests ie about 550 places have been slashed from the latter’s potential enrolment. Follow the links to see how NEELB officers carried out an exceedingly dodgy consultation exercise and members appeared to be more interested in mince pies than in the changes being pushed through.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Nevin for drawing our attention to this, and highlighting yet another example of the kind of dodgy consultation that claims to encourage community involvement while, as you say, handling the matter to suit pre-set agendas.

    I’d mentioned Edward Bernays a few times recently on Slugger, and his popularising of the term “Propaganda” during the 1920s as a kind of simple dissemination of information within democracies. The manipulation of voters by government bodies and the institutionalising of this practice is so much a “given” in his thinking that he does not even appear to see the contradiction between this practice and the very essence of democracy, human freedom. Bernays thinking has become so entirely encoded in the way all administrative bodies now think that they don’t appear to even know they are doing something contentious that is less than a hundred years old.

    As you point out, this practice within DENI is so ingrained that their concern seem sto be only to carry out policy, and not to craft this policy to genuine local requirements as they are understood at point of need.

  • Nevin

    Seaan, even though the ‘consultations’ were carried out by different Boards, there do appear to be some shared patterns. This could be as a result of a DENI directive or the limited remit of the Boards. The Catholic and Integrated sectors opted-out of the ‘area planning’ process conducted by the Boards but they may have been subjected to pressure from DETI on the selection issue.

    Information is power and bureaucrats have been anxious to limit access to the inner machinations! One senior civil servant pointed out to me that the process was ‘sensitive’! On another occasion, senior civil servants were prepared to lie. They weren’t to know that they were lying to close acquaintances who had ‘colluded’ with me!

    Parents are likely to vote with their feet: those who have by-passed failing schools may continue to do so and those who consider non-selective grammar schools to be non-grammar schools or who wish to avoid the turmoil of dramatic changes may look to more stable settings.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you again Nevin for an insightful set of pointers for the rest of us, into the thinking and actions of those in power here. I myself hear things, usually on London trips, that make my hair stand on end. The contempt of those administering power “on behalf of the public” [sic] is made even more offensive by their apparent inability to even begin to realise the moral implications of their behaviour for anyone who genuinely believes in the old concept of the “Public Good” and is old enough to remember the term “Democratic accountability” .

  • Nevin

    I sent the following off this morning, ‘I’ve still not received a reply to my September 30 email and the October 24 follow-up? Doesn’t DENI pay heed to the 20-working days expectation?’ and received a prompt apology and a promise of action this very day …

    Added: Just in, ‘Your email has been passed to our office and we will endeavour to respond in the next day or so’.

    This could be the basis of a new NALIL blog 🙂

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah, now all we need are replys that honestly respond to the request!

  • aber1991

    Not a bad idea.

    P.S. I suspect that you have posted that on the wrong thread.

  • Guest

    I’ve read quite a lot on this debate over the last couple of months and when I take a step back, it looks much more like hearts are prevailing over heads. Obviously tradition is very nice but the number of post-primary schools

  • Gingray

    Huh? Looks like you didn’t finish! And of course hearts win over heads – Northern Irelands best grammar and secondary schools are in the Catholic sector. Surely it’s time for the state to replicate their good work 😉 If you use your head that is

  • gmd

    If its not broke don’t fix it!!

  • gmd

    amalgamating????? They are CLOSING the two schools to make a new co-ed school.

  • Stephen Elliott

    Contributors to this thread are missing a most vital issue
    in the Portora /Collegiate merger story. In November 2014 a public meeting was
    held at the Collegiate Grammar at which Arlene Foster of the DUP and past pupil
    of the school was a platform speaker.

    She was quoted in the Impartial Reporter reacting to the decision of John O’Dowd, the Education Minister, to close the Enniskillen Collegiate by saying;

    “I am hugely disappointed but not surprised that a Sinn Fein
    Minister has approved the closure of two grammar schools in Enniskillen.

    “He has ignored the views of the Collegiate pupils,
    teachers, governors, the wider community and significantly the Assembly.

    “I along with those opposed to the closure of these schools
    will be considering our next options in this matter.”

    “The matter is not over”
    Impartial Reporter 28 November, 2014

    The Collegiate principal, Elizabeth Armstrong said the
    proposal asked the Enniskillen community

    “to swop proven reality for vague promises”

    The Chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association,
    Robert McCartney QC was also present at the meeting and his contribution shines
    a revealing light on Arlene Foster’s subsequent actions. According to sources
    present Mr McCartney advised Arlene Foster to act swiftly in bringing the
    matter to the Executive while the DUP speaker of the Assembly Willie Hay remained in post.

    Mr Hay was first mooted “to stand down” as Speaker in a story by Mark Davenport, BBC Northern Ireland Political editor, on 18 November 2013. Mr Hay had a letter read out to the Assembly in October 2014 in which he eventually announced his retirement.

    On January 16 2015 the former NI Assembly speaker denied expenses allegations were behind his retirement.

    Arlene Foster the senior DUP MLA conveniently procrastinated until the second day of the Sinn Fein Speaker’s reign to bring forward her option.

    It would seem that the grammar school community have been duped again.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    By the same token should all RC secondary schools in Fermanagh outside of Enniskillen be closed?

  • Joe_Hoggs

    There is no requirement for St. Marys or indeed other RC schools in Fermanagh to close outside of St. Eugenes.