Proponents of academic selection in Northern Ireland have warmly welcomed the announcement of the first new grammar school in England for 50 years.
Approval for the 450-pupil school – an extension of an existing grammar in Kent – was confirmed by English Education Secretary Nicky Morgan yesterday.
In a written statement, she insisted the decision was not a change in the Government’s position on selective schools.
Labour passed laws in 1998 banning the creation of new grammars - which are selective state schools - but existing schools are allowed to expand if there is sufficient demand.
The Sevenoaks school is not covered by the ban because it is officially an annexe of Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge.
DUP education spokesman Peter Weir responded yesterday: “Whether the development in Kent is a ‘new’ grammar school or the expansion of an existing school on a different site is an interesting debate. What is clear, however, is that parental demand for academic selection exists not just in Northern Ireland but in other parts of the UK also.
“We know there is strong support for academic selection here and it is protected in legislation. It is disappointing however that selection is so often used as a whipping-boy by its opponents to explain every problem within the education system.
“Schemes to tackle underachievement and early intervention to tackle problems we see occurring can sit alongside selection. They do not have to be an either/or choice.”
Principal of Lurgan College Trevor Robinson noted that the decision does not reflect any change in the Government’s stance in relation to academic selection.
“I’m not sure that I would read too much into this decision other than it’s pleasing to note that there continues to be a place in education for solutions supported by local communities,” he added.
Mrs Morgan said that “all good and outstanding schools should be able to expand”.
“The Weald of Kent Grammar School is one of the top performing schools in the country, with 99 per cent of its students achieving five A*-C grades in GCSE exams in 2014, and 98 per cent of sixth form students achieving at least three A-Levels at grades A*-E,” she added.
Campaigners in favour of more grammar schools have argued that scrapping the 11-plus test in most areas of the country has hampered social mobility for bright pupils from poor backgrounds.
But critics argue that entry to selective schools is often restricted to wealthier children whose parents can afford private tuition and those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to miss out.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the matter had no relevance for Northern Ireland.
“The decision to open a new grammar school in England is a matter for the Department of Education in England,” she said.
“The decision in no way changes the minister’s view, or the wealth of international evidence, that academic selection creates inequality and is at the heart of many of the education inequalities highlighted last week in the Equality Commission report.”