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Catholic Church endorses continuation of 11 plus

7 April 2009

John McAnulty

There are no surprises in the news that reactionary religious bigots, with centuries of experience in maintaining confessional and class rule in Ireland, have opted to maintain class division in education. What may cause some people to raise an eyebrow is the limitless hypocrisy accompanying the 30th March announcement by Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) that the Church, despite recent statements that it was a champion of educational equality, is to endorse its own selection test for the transfer to secondary education. 

Firstly there is the pretence that the Catholic grammar schools had found a sudden independence from the hierarchy when they first announced their intention to defy Sinn Fein education Caitriona Ruane and run a private 11+ system.

Then the ‘independent’ commission – the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE), tightly led by the hierarchy and fronted by the grammar schools, comes to its predetermined conclusion. The secondary members are silent. The primary schools, whose pupils will have these tests imposed on them, sit silent.

The ‘reluctant’ hierarchy balance their statement with a commitment that all Catholic schools should stop using academic selection no later than 2012.  They need more time – even though selection was abolished when Martin McGuinness was education minister and they have had years to prepare.

The hierarchy calls on Catholic schools to implement the Education Minister’s non-academic admissions guidelines as fully as possible – that is, in line with keeping selection.

Shamelessly they even define the nature of the tests – making sure that there is more pressure on children, but ensuring that there is no common exam with Protestant grammars and the Catholic brand name is preserved.  Given that the Protestant grammars want to retain selection indefinitely it is unclear why the church would abandon the field of elite education in a few years time.

The NICCE press conference at St Patrick’s High School in Keady carried one other subliminal message.  St Pats is the long-term thinking of the hierarchy. The school, a massive new build funded by PFI finance – a gift from the British to the church – is co-educational and non-selective.  It is not a comprehensive school, merely a way of funneling all children of catholic parents into one school and nesting a small grammar core within a secondary shell.

In fact the church has been engaged in a massive downsizing operation, closing and amalgamating schools without any consideration of the needs of pupils, parents or teachers. The basic plan is to consolidate church rule and ensure catholic control of schools for a further generation.  The hierarchy has also been active in proving themselves the most fervent supporters of British, to the forefront in abandoning a common curriculum for all children and endorsing new occupational courses that will bar many secondary children from academic subjects without even the possibility of legitimate vocational training.

A new educational and skills authority (ESA) was meant to rationalize and centralize education.  The church, in secret negotiations with the British, got all the old sectarian and class elements bolted on – in reality there was an increase in factional representation once the DUP got in on the act.  Now they are back for more, shamelessly lobbying the DUP bigots to ensure they have the power to select and discriminate against teachers from within ESA. This is necessary to preserve the catholic ethos of the schools. 

The ethos is supposed to be an invisible set of characteristics that set the moral tone of the schools.  Apparently it is not strong enough to rest on spontaneous support of the population, but must be reinforced by the all too material cudgel of discrimination and intimidation.

The old adage is that he who sups with the devil must use a long spoon. Sinn Fein have been supping with a very short spoon with the British, the DUP and the Catholic Church.  They believed that imperialism would act to modernise the northern state and gradually erode sectarianism.  They believed that the DUP could be brought to accept the concessions promised by Britain and they believed the Catholic hierarchy when they said that they were committed to equality and justice.

That dream has ended. Unfortunately the dream was the case study for the whole strategy of reforming the north.  The immediate result is parents and children disappointed and trapped in the same old system. The longer term result is Sinn Fein presiding over reaction with no way back from the empty formalism of office and no role but to defend the indefensible. As one commentator said some time ago, the new Northern Ireland resembles nothing so much as the old northern state. This is true down to the fine grain of everyday life, reaching down to influence the life of schoolchildren who deserve a better society.


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