KATE HOEY: Sinn Fein’s biased approach to schools

Kate Hoey
Kate Hoey

Last week I attended the celebration of a new flood lit hockey pitch at the playing fields of my old Grammar school Belfast Royal Academy.

I loved my schooldays at BRA and have returned regularly over the years always departing full of pride and humbled by the dedication of the staff and the enthusiasm of the pupils.

Even better than an artificially created integrated school, Belfast Royal Academy like Methodist College and some other grammar schools has grown organically into a school where children from all religious backgrounds and none attend.

Many attempts have been made, including from my own Government when in power,to abolish grammar schools by one means or another.

That has so far failed and the system of selection, means that schools like BRA can still provide opportunities for families with limited means.

Northern Ireland’s education system is envied in England as we have a far higher percentage of university entrants coming from a working class background than in the rest of the UK and few children being educated privately.

Of course more needs to be done to raise the aspirations of, in particular, working class Protestants. Overall grammar schools have improved social mobility.

I know that coming from a rural background my attendance at BRA meant I mixed with children from very rich and very poor backgrounds and from a wide geographical spread.

However today If I were to travel to BRA from the small farm I grew up on I would not get help with transport costs.

However under the current consultation if I was to attend an integrated school,no matter how far away and how many other schools I drove past I would get my costs. This is pure discrimination and should be challenged.

Ironically just as support for new grammar schools in England is growing we see in Northern Ireland a minister who seems obsessed with the establishment of an Irish medium school in Dungiven whilst at the same time forcing the closure of the hugely popular and oversubscribed Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar school.

The decision to close the Collegiate is against the wish of the Board of Governors, the overwhelming majority of staff, parents and pupils and huge local opposition expressed in a 7000 word petition. It seems that double standards have operated within the Education Department.

The minister used DE policies on sustainability and curriculum issues to cast aside the clearly expressed views of the school and the community yet ignored all policy frameworks in order to support a small Irish school with initially just 14 pupils.

Even more shockingly the biased nature of the decision was shown by the newly elected Sinn Fein Speaker who ruled against the decision being referred to the Executive but the Irish school could not be stopped because there had to be cross community support due to the petition of concern brought by Sinn and the SDLP.

Is it any wonder that people in Northern Ireland are so cynical about how politics works here?

Elizabeth Armstrong the inspirational Principal of the Collegiate has never wanted to score sectarian points over any of the other schools in the area.

As a non-denominational school open to all religions and none she just wants her school to give a wonderful education to even more young people. Anyone who really cares about Northern Ireland’s future success should be so proud of the standard of education in our many different types of schools.

The minister should be singing the praises of the Collegiate school. That would, however, require him to WANT NORTHERN IRELAND and all its people to succeed and for such success to be more important to him and Sinn Fein than sacrificing an outstanding school in order to score political points.

• Kate Hoey is Labour MP for Vauxhall