Statement by the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland on the future of academic selection

21 Jun 2012

Statement by the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland on the future of academic selection

‘The future starts today, not tomorrow’ – Pope John Paul II

Bishops have responsibility to ensure that Catholic-managed schools, working together, provide the best possible education for their pupils. We also have responsibility to give clear and unequivocal leadership in the general regulation and planning of Catholic education in our respective Dioceses. Catholic schools have made a huge contribution to raising educational standards. We want to ensure that our faith-based schools are in a position to offer the best possible educational opportunities to all their pupils in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century.

Over the past number of years, we have listened to a diverse range of opinions about future arrangements for Catholic Schools. This has been necessary in light of the new challenges all schools in Northern Ireland have to face, notably: that all pupils have to be provided with the same curriculum entitlement, that there is a significant downturn in the number of children of school-going age and that there are increasing pressures on the public funding of all schools. This means that our school system cannot remain as it is.

Many share our conviction that transfer to post-primary education by academic selection, known popularly as the ’11-plus’, is failing our young people and their parents. It can seriously distort the focus of learning and teaching for children in Primary Six and Seven. It artificially divides children into two distinct school groups, even though all schools must offer their pupils access to the same curriculum entitlement. It does not do justice to the way in which the skills and abilities of children develop at this critical stage of their lives. Further, it has a disproportionate and unacceptable impact on the educational opportunities of the most socially disadvantaged. As Catholic educators our outreach to these children and young people is particularly important.

We have also noted the widely respected international research of the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD, which indicates that academic selection at such a young age tends to have a detrimental effect on the overall educational achievement of children in a country.

All of this has convinced us that the current system of academic selection at age eleven has contributed to what is in fact a mediocre performance of the school system in Northern Ireland by international standards and that it has now outlived its usefulness.

We therefore call on all political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent agreement on a better system of transfer to post-primary schools.

For our part, as those with responsibility for the general planning and regulation of Catholic education, we also call on all involved in Catholic Schools to urgently engage with each other and those in the wider educational community to begin a phased transition away from this practice.

We support the desire of all parents for schools that will help their children achieve academic excellence. We are committed to ensuring that every Catholic school has this as a fundamental aim. Moving away from academic selection improves the opportunity to achieve this.

A phased transition away from academic selection will however, require all Catholic schools working together to ensure the best possible opportunities for children and the best possible use of educational resources in a given area. To assist this transition and to facilitate schools working together to achieve better outcomes for children and parents, we restate our support today for the policy of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education (NICCE).

Specifically, we request that:

•    All Catholic Trustees endorse a phased transition away from the use of academic selection for transfer to post-primary education;

•    All Boards of Governors of Catholic Schools engage with other Catholic primary and post-primary schools during the academic year 2012-2013 to discuss how to move to high quality non-selective arrangements within their area;

•    All Catholic Grammar schools operate a policy of admitting no more than 75% of pupils on the basis of academic selection no later than September 2014;

NICCE will commission an independent evaluation of the impact and progress of these initial changes towards the ending of academic selection across the family of Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland. We will continue to engage with Boards of Governors, principals, teachers and parents on the issue of academic selection and managing this vital transition to a better arrangement for children and parents in our respective Dioceses.

Parents across Northern Ireland want all of us in leadership to work together to ensure our young people receive the best possible preparation for the challenges and opportunities that lie before them. Agreement between the political parties in Northern Ireland on a better system than academic selection at ’11-plus’ would greatly assist all schools in providing better educational outcomes for children.

This statement has been endorsed by all of the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland and the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Derry.

+Seán Cardinal Brady
Archbishop of Armagh
+Gerard Clifford
Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh

+Noel Treanor
Bishop of Down and Connor
+Anthony Farquhar
Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor
+Donal McKeown
Auxiliary Bishop of Down & Connor

+Liam MacDaid
Bishop of Clogher

+John McAreavey
Bishop of Dromore

+Leo O’Reilly
Bishop of Kilmore

Monsignor Eamon Martin
Diocesan Administrator, Diocese of Derry


For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444