Catholic schools' alarm at Peter Weir's statement

The Catholic Principals' Association- representing the views of educational leaders in 230 schools- is deeply disappointed and concerned by the recent statement issued by the Minister of Education, Mr Peter Weir, relating to the issue of coaching and preparation in primary schools for unregulated, private tests.

We have consistently argued for a new vision for education in NI which goes beyond the sectional interests of some parts of our community - one which focusses on the educational needs of all pupils regardless of ability, social or community background.

The new Department of Education guidelines are, in our view, regressive, contradictory and at odds with the realisation of such a vision.

All children have a statutory and equal right to access the primary curriculum. The Minister should clarify, as a matter of urgency, how the practice of coaching in schools for private tests is consistent with this legal right. He and his department should also clarify how the “Wishes of parents” vis a vis coaching might be determined by schools in line with the statutory rights of all children to access teaching and learning at a level appropriate to their needs and abilities.

The Minister should be aware that there is no syllabus or guidelines for these private tests -rendering preparation for these tests virtually impossible.

Moreover, permitting coaching for unregulated tests sets a very dangerous precedent which could lead to an educational “free for all” and thus undermine the implementation and delivery of the primary curriculum- a curriculum which is admired worldwide.

We believe that these “guidelines”- issued by the Minister / Department of Education, at the beginning of a new school term, will only cause further uncertainty and confusion for parents, school leaders and pupils. Moreover, it has the potential to damage the education of children in our schools and do long term damage to the system of education here.

The implication from the guidelines that the needs of some pupils should be prioritised at the expense of others is incompatible with the inclusive nature of our schools and is a direct challenge to our Catholic ethos.

We are aware that there are many voices within broader society and across the community who share our concerns about the effects which selection has on educational underachievement and inequality especially within disadvantaged communities.

We will continue to make common cause with those progressive individuals and organisations. We also note the interventions recently from the UN and NI Human Rights Commission.

We call on Archbishop Eamon Martin/ CCMS to make an urgent statement re the position of the Catholic Church/ CCMS with regard to any advice/ guidance offered to Catholic schools.

Carmel Dunn, Secretary, CPA