THE chairman of Stormont’s education committee last night accused Northern Ireland’s Roman Catholic bishops of holding private academic selection talks with Sinn Fein but refusing to meet him.
Mervyn Storey, of the DUP, made the claim – which was last night denied by the Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor, Donal McKeown – following a fresh attempt by the bishops to put pressure on Catholic grammar schools to abandon academic selection.
Catholic grammars – many of which are consistently ranked among the best schools in Northern Ireland – have resisted repeated calls from both the Church and nationalist politicians to stop selecting pupils based on their academic ability.
In an 800-word statement yesterday, the bishops “requested” that Catholic grammars phase out academic selection.
But Mr Storey, chairman of Stormont’s education committee, said that the appeal was “an admission of failure on the part of the bishops”.
The DUP MLA said: “They set out the same stall when Cardinal Brady said basically the same thing in 2009 and here we are in 2012 and they are still saying the same thing.”
The bishops claimed that Northern Ireland has a “mediocre” performance and called on politicians to “seek urgent agreement on a better system of transfer to post-primary schools”.
But Mr Storey told the News Letter: “If they are so concerned about what politicians have or haven’t been doing, why haven’t they come, despite requests to meet them, knocking on my door to have those discussions?
“They should not make the mistake of thinking that they can have a one-way discussion with Sinn Fein and exclude everybody else because they need to be reminded that it is a five-party mandatory coalition that operates at Stormont.”
But last night Bishop Donal McKeown insisted that the bishops were happy to meet anyone and said that his party only met with Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd because he is education minister.
He told the News Letter that his last formal meeting with Mr Storey was “probably 18 months ago” and that he met Mr O’Dowd “some months ago” but said that there are “constant conversations going on with advisers”.
“Our only engagement with Sinn Fein is with the minister for education, not with the party,” he said.
When asked whether it was true that Mr Storey had invited the bishops to meet but they had not taken up the offer, he said: “Not that I know of. I’m free to meet him as soon as possible if he feels that would be helpful. We’re happy to engage with anybody.”
In yesterday’s statement, the bishops said that in the context of falling school rolls and cuts in public money for education, “our school system cannot remain as it is”.
The church leaders said: “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.”
And, in a direct appeal to Catholic educators, the bishops said: “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.”
The bishops repeated their call for a “phased transition away from academic selection” and “requested” the trustees of Catholic schools to “endorse” a transition away from academic selection for post-primary transfer.
The bishops also asked all Catholic schools to admit no more than 75 per cent of their pupils by academic selection no later than September 2014.