Statement by Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education on Post-Primary Transfer

17 Jun 2009

17 June 2009

Statement by Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education on Post-Primary Transfer

The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) issued a policy statement on post-primary transfer in Keady, Armagh, on 30 March 2009.  The main focus of this statement was the decision by the Commission that academic selection as the main criterion for entry to Catholic Grammar Schools should be phased out by 2012.  This further statement is intended to provide an outline of the way in which this policy should be implemented within the Catholic school sector. 

1. Context:
The Commission is fully aware that the prospect of an unregulated system of testing is causing a huge degree of anxiety to pupils, parents, teachers and governors within primary and post-primary schools. Trustees consider that the primary cause of this is the failure of legislators to reach agreed decisions about difficult issues.  Concerns have been brought to the attention of Trustees by various representative groups of teachers and principals.  Schools feel pulled in different directions by conflicting pressures.

  • Primary schools are torn between the statutory requirements of the NI Curriculum and the pressure from some parents to prepare children for unregulated tests. Furthermore they often feel ignored in debates about post-primary schooling;
  • Some non-selective post-primary schools continue to feel isolated as they struggle with seeking to implement the Entitlement Framework in the face of serious demographic changes; and under an open enrolment policy;
  • Some Grammar schools wish to move forward but feel constrained by the reluctance of others to change and resent being caricatured as merely elitist.

2. Trustees:
In the context of the ongoing confusion and dissension over the current situation, the Trustees seek to offer clear leadership. It is Trustees who have the responsibility for planning and determining the overall policy of the network of Catholic schools. It is they who set the general policy direction for Catholic schools especially where that policy touches on issues of ethos, the defining character of schools and planning for the whole Catholic sector. The Trustees also have an expectation that the religious and moral purpose for which Catholic Schools were founded is honoured and upheld by Boards of Governors, Principals and Staff in the interpretation and discharge of statutory functions and Department guidance. All Catholic schools – whatever their specific history – are part of a family of schools and key policy decisions by the Trustees are valid for the whole sector.  A particular responsibility for developing such policies rests with the Board of Governors in each school and particularly with Trustee representatives nominated to Boards of Governors specifically for the purpose of nurturing and maintaining that unique ethos.

3. Complex change:
Transfer at age eleven is only one of the current key educational issues. Some public and political discussion on the issue of Transfer fails to situate the debate in the context of wider educational, social and economic change. Thus it is vital that any strategies are seen as part of a process of renewing educational provision. Any move to develop a new method of transfer from Primary School or to maintain the current system, without acknowledging the range of other changes – including the revised NI Curriculum, the Entitlement Framework, the Sustainable Schools policy and the demographic trends – will fail to deliver the intended outcomes for pupils and for the system.

4. Primary education:
Primary school education provides a critical and formative part of the educational experience for many young people. Thus the primary school is not merely a preparation for secondary education but fundamental in its own right to a young person’s learning and skills development. Primary schools should thus be seen by all as key partners in providing quality education for all children. Their wisdom and experience must inform all decisions that are taken regarding curricular progression and contribute also to any consideration of educational structures and processes.   Any restructuring of educational provision in an area must therefore always be seen in the context of local 4-19 provision.

5. Post-Primary Review process:
The Trustees, with Department of Education support, have set up the Post-Primary Review (PPR) process. This review, conducted with the support of relevant professionals, is working with Trustees, schools, Boards of Governors, other educational providers and local communities to establish the best future arrangements for the delivery of high quality Catholic education in each local area. Its specific goal is to ensure that all pupils would have access to the full Entitlement Framework in the context of the Sustainable Schools Policy. We remain convinced that this is a responsible and effective way of fulfilling our duty as Trustees. The active engagement of all school partners – and in particular that of the Boards of Governors and Principals of every Catholic post-primary school – will ensure the participation of their school in the creation of new arrangements to address local needs. The PPR process – involving all post-primary schools and Trustees in each designated area of Northern Ireland – will be informed by the decision that transfer to post-primary schools at age 11 by non-selective means will become the norm for the Catholic sector by the end of 2012.

6. Transition:
On its own this would be a process of major change. However, the question of Transfer has further complicated the issue. Nevertheless we believe that the PPR process remains the ideal context for this restructuring of educational provision.  Because of the complexity of the structural issues involved and the need to reassure parents and schools alike, the Commission has consistently argued that a short transition period is necessary to enable parents and schools to adapt to the current major process of educational change, and to plan for the future of post-primary schooling in the context of non-selective schooling.  It is with emphasis on this need for prudent change management that NICCE now presents the following as the further policy guidance of the Trustees of Catholic Schools for the period of transition from the present to September 2012:

6.1 The current system of academic selection at age eleven is no longer an appropriate way for children to transfer to post-primary education. The Trustees remain fully committed to their policy of ending academic selection at age eleven in all Catholic schools by 2012.

6.2 Having a two year period of transition will allow Catholic education at second level to be restructured in light of all of the issues affecting future Catholic school provision in Northern Ireland.

6.3 The period of transition for ending academic selection at age eleven in Catholic Grammar schools is designed to coincide with the completion of the Post-Primary Review process.  Thus, by 2012, a clear plan will be in place setting out how all children can access high quality post-primary education in their area.  This timeframe and process allows for a reasonable period of adjustment and for dialogue between all involved in the provision of Catholic education in each local area. It also allows those schools that need to plan for the end of academic selection at age eleven to do so.

6.4 The period of transition invoked in our policy is one year less than that originally proposed for all Northern Ireland schools because we believe that the Post-Primary Review process can provide clarity on the nature of provision in each area by the end of 2010.  These projects are due to put local options out to pre-consultation with stakeholders in the autumn of 2009. Trustees in each area will consider the recommendations in each report and feedback from the pre-consultation process by early spring 2010. This will allow for a managed transition for the cohort of pupils entering post-primary education in September 2012. The Commission sees this process as the most appropriate vehicle for negotiating the future structure of post-primary schooling for the Catholic sector.  Our approach is based on educational considerations and considerations arising from responsible transition management.

6.5 It follows then that, beginning immediately with the September 2010 intake, there should be a gradual but substantial annual downward adjustment in the number of pupils admitted to Grammar schools using academic criteria. Such a plan should explicitly indicate realistic, responsible and verifiable figures, moving from the current 100% to zero. This will lead to a diminution of the role of academic selection at age eleven. It will mean that the last cohort to admit 100% through academic criteria in Catholic Grammar schools will be September 2009. A figure of less than 100% would then apply in 2010, with a further reduction in 2011, leading to a fully non-selective enrolment in Catholic Grammar schools in 2012. The Commission expects an early publication of the reducing quotients that each Catholic Grammar school will apply in this respect so that parents and primary schools can be fully informed as soon as possible. Faithful adherence to these gradual limits will signal the commitment of everyone in the family of Catholic schools to move together to new, just and educationally effective post-primary arrangements.

6.6 Post-Primary Review will thus provide the context for this as part of the necessary systemic change. That will involve appreciable change for almost all schools and not just for Grammar schools. However any new arrangements should be sensitive to local circumstances and needs and should not be based on a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

a. In order to support the transition process, the Commission asks Board of Governors of each Grammar school to incorporate the process referred to above (cf. 6.5) into a transition plan, setting out the steps they will take so that the transition to a non-selective model of entry will be effected for entry in September 2012. It should also address any issues related to the School Development Plan, staff development, management of resources and school policies.  The Commission asks to have these transition plans completed by the end of October 2009. Some individual Trustee bodies will actively seek to support schools in this process. However, in many cases, this will also involve collaboration between various Trustee bodies.

b. Since the changes may also involve appreciable curricular, staffing, training and other changes for some non-selective schools, substantial transition planning will be necessary in all schools. This too requires schools to develop an appropriate transition plan.

7. Unregulated tests:
Catholic Grammar Schools which choose to use academic assessment as part of the selection process for new pupils during the transition period must take complete responsibility for that process and for any liabilities which may arise from it. However, if a school decides to use a test, it is the view of the Commission that any assessment chosen should be based solely and directly on the English and Mathematics elements of the Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum. Any assessment which is not specifically designed for this purpose is unacceptable and is contrary to the policy set out by the Commission in its statement of 30th March.

8. Differentiation:
Trustees are clear that schools should be responsive to the needs of each pupil. Thus, once a child has transferred to Post-Primary School, the Trustees would envisage the use of a range of appropriate forms of assessment and diagnostic information, to assist in matching the particular aptitudes of a child to different classes, bands and sets in keeping with the organisational structure of the school. This will also involve structural adjustments by schools in the interests of optimising outcomes for all pupils. Imaginative collaboration between schools will, in some areas, facilitate that in the interest of pupil learning and development. Trustees expect that key decisions on subjects and courses for further study and career development would be taken at the end of Key Stage 3.  Staff will need additional support in effectively managing this change process and such support will demand the investment of additional person and financial resources by the Department of Education.

As Trustees, we have sought to develop our policy in response to the many changes which will affect schools in Northern Ireland in the coming years, not simply the issue of transfer. The issue of transfer has too often been approached as an issue on its own and the heated debate has subverted a necessary analysis and review of the entire education system. In this regard, the Trustees seek a systemic approach to educational reform. Thus, while engaging in the specifics of Transfer, the Trustees have also indicated their grave concerns about aspects of the draft legislation which would set up the Education and Skills Authority. These concerns have been stated clearly in active engagement with DE, the Education Committee of the Assembly and political parties.

We wish to promote respectful dialogue between schools and with other education partners in our sector as well as with wider teaching and learning communities.  We continue to seek to find agreement on these issues based on the Gospel as a guiding principle. We seek the best for all, including the promotion of high standards where they have been achieved and improvement where that is necessary.  Solidarity, respect and patiently working to resolve sincerely held differences of view are other Christian principles which inform our approach as Trustees to these matters.

It should be emphasised that conditions and circumstances can change because of the politicised nature of this issue. However, the Commission is of the view that the approach outlined in this statement (and in the earlier statement on March 30th) reflects our policy in the current circumstances. Inevitably, it will have to be monitored in the light of any changes in circumstances and the eventual framework agreed by legislators. Nevertheless, the clear direction of travel is away from the current unsustainable model which has failed too many young people.

The planned move away from academic selection is, of course, challenging for all of us, and this challenge is underlined and magnified by the inability of political leaders to achieve a consensus in relation to this issue.  Catholic schools will now move in a new direction. This places additional pressure on those parents who are accustomed to the long-standing models of grammar and secondary schools.  It is essential to the success of the transition planning that parents be fully reassured that the quality of education offered in the emerging Catholic post-primary sector will continue the long tradition of high quality educational achievement of students in Catholic schools.  However, we believe that the majority of stakeholders in Catholic education are committed to moving away from academic selection at age eleven. We thus ask all partners to work together with respect and determination in pursuit of the welfare of all children.

The Commission wishes to reaffirm its high regard for the commitment to Catholic education of all of the Catholic schools in Northern Ireland.   The leadership provided by Boards of Governors and Principals, and the professionalism of teachers, administrative and support staff, are reflected in the continuing achievements of students and the confidence shown by parents.  The Commission urges that the challenges ahead be met in a spirit of collegiality and understanding, so that the Catholic school sector is enabled to face the changes which lie ahead and contribute to the Common Good.

We are satisfied that this policy is based on sound educational and administrative considerations which are consistent with the values and vision of Catholic education.   The Commission will continue to collaborate closely with other school sectors, so as to ensure that together we will develop and implement strategies aimed at promoting excellence for all the young people of Northern Ireland.


Notes to Editors

The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE) was set up in 2005 to co-ordinate the work of all Catholic School Trustees in NI. The six Northern dioceses and all the religious congregations with schools in NI have each nominated three members. The current membership is: 

Bishops Patrick Walsh, Seamus Hegarty and Donal McKeown and Sr Eithne Woulfe (Sisters of St Louis), Sr Nellie McLoughlin (Sisters of Mercy) and Br. Eddie Coupe (Irish Christian Brothers).

Bishop John McAreavey attends meetings as Chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

The responsibilities of NICCE include:

  • Working to maintain a cohesive Catholic education system;
  • Liaising with Government and other statutory bodies in regards to Catholic education;
  • Developing the new Trustee Support Body, with effect from Jan 1st 2010;
  • Co-ordinating Trustee interests.

Further information:
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 233 7797