School head warning on grammar education

Arlene Foster MLA with Collegiate Grammar school governors, parents, pupils and teachers at Stormont on Tuesday
Arlene Foster MLA with Collegiate Grammar school governors, parents, pupils and teachers at Stormont on Tuesday

A grammar school principal fears any removal of its use of academic selection could set a dangerous precedent for the independence of all schools across Northern Ireland.

Enniskillen Collegiate head Elizabeth Armstrong told of her concerns yesterday after helping deliver a petition of over 7,000 names to the Assembly, calling for a reprieve for her school.

Supporters of the Collegiate, a girls’ school, are campaigning against a proposed merger with Portora Royal, a mainly boys’ school, on the other side of Enniskillen.

Ms Armstrong says that the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) has repeatedly declined to give her any assurances that the merger would use academic selection. WELB last night declined to comment on her claims.

“If this [merger] can happen to a successful grammar school like the Collegiate – against the clear wishes of the board of governors, parents, pupils and the community – then is any school safe under these area plan proposals and indeed is any grammar school safe?” she asked.

The increasing use of the term ‘grammar school’ to refer to all-ability schools is “directly linked to the minister’s ambition to get rid of academically selective grammar schools,” Ms Armstrong said.

Peter Aiken, chairman of Portadown College Board of Governors, believes the Collegiate is falling victim to the same ‘comprehensivisation’ plans his school is fighting.

“Here we go again,” he said.

However, Portora principal Neill Morton believes the Enniskillen merger is critical in order to preserve “high quality” grammar education in the area – and is certain academic selection is protected by law.

Ms Armstrong said: “The evidence in all the consultation WELB has done to date has found that people are overwhelmingly against this merger.”

She added: “The [WELB] area plan consistently links this amalgamation on the basis that there are too many pupils going into grammar schools in the controlled voluntary sector in this area.

“The board is saying that nearby non-selective Devenish College is leaking pupils and that the grammar schools are filling up with pupils instead.

“However, our intake of pupils is capped, so if Devenish is failing despite the closure of three other secondary schools in the area, then it is because parents are opting to send their children elsewhere, for example to Omagh.

“We have asked the board repeatedly if the new school will be selective but we have been given no guarantees. On one occasion the response we got was ‘what is a grammar school?’.”

Former Collegiate pupil, DUP MLA Arlene Foster, said: “I do not accept that it is necessary to close two high-performing schools in order to achieve the best outcome for education in Fermanagh.

“The first priority should be a new-build for Devenish College, not the closure of two very successful schools.”

She added: “The Western Education and Library Board has repeatedly failed in its task to deliver a strategic plan that would support all schools and which can command full community support.

“ It is vital now that the Education Minister listens to the loud voice coming forward in this consultation period on the proposals.”

A spokesman for Education Minister John O’Dowd said: “The proposals are currently out for public consultation and anyone with an interest can make their views known.

“The minister has agreed to meet a delegation of parents of Collegiate Grammar School to listen to their views on the proposals.

“The consultation ends on July 14; after that all pertinent information will be collated and he will make a final decision.”