Addresses at the Launch of the Post-Primary Review Report

Post-Primary Review media briefing,  Monday 13th February 2012



Cardinal Seán Brady

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Trustees of Catholic Schools in Northern Ireland, I want to thank you for being here today. We welcome your interest in the publication of this strategic report entitled Catholic Education for All, by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education. We value your assistance in making its contents as widely known as possible, especially to those thousands of individuals, families and others who will have an interest its recommendations.

These recommendations represent proposals for potentially the most comprehensive and radical reorganization of Catholic Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland ever to be undertaken. This strategic report will help set the fundamental direction for the administration of Catholic education here for decades to come.

I want to thank those who have prepared this report: the 16 project area teams, CCMS, NICCE, the administration and support staff involved and Stakeholder Communications. In particular, I want to thank those who contributed in such large numbers to the process of consultation that has informed the report’s recommendations. The involvement of so many parents, teachers, pupils, communities and other stakeholders has been vital in ensuring the widest possible range of views, insights and needs have been taken into account.

Since we launched our original consultation in 2010 more than 28,000 respondents have given their views. This is an extraordinary level of participation, by any standard. The publication of this report today is the outcome of that inclusive and open consultation process. The report marks a further and hugely significant contribution to the reshaping of Catholic post-primary education. It also reflects a huge level of commitment to ensuring the continued provision of high quality Catholic education across Northern Ireland and within local communities.

Our Catholic schools are and always have been deeply rooted in and highly valued by the local communities which they serve. Catholic Schools do not exist in isolation but as active participants in the community and society of which they are a part. They offer an education rooted in the dignity of every person made in the image and likeness of God. They promote a vision of human relationships and society based on the love, justice, peace and good will lived and taught by Jesus in the Gospels.

As Trustees we are very conscious of our responsibility to parents, children and wider society to ensure that Catholic schools provide an ethos based on these values and an excellent educational opportunity for all. We are also conscious of our responsibility to ensure that Catholic schools contribute to the development of a shared society where diversity is cherished and celebrated. These values have guided our approach to this report and its recommendations. In the consultation that will follow publication of this report, the Trustees of Catholic schools are open to exploring new and creative possibilities for greater collaboration and sharing of resources with other education stakeholders, on a shared faith basis. For too long, the debate about ‘integrating’ education in Northern Ireland has given priority to one particular model of sharing and integration. Other models are possible and where satisfactory governance, ownership and ethos arrangements can be agreed, Catholic Trustees in Northern Ireland remain open to this possibility.

These are immensely challenging times for all schools in Northern Ireland. Widening curriculum demands, the demographic downturn at post-primary level and the dramatic change in our public finances mean that hard decisions have to be made. Naturally, we would all prefer things to stay as they are. No one likes to have to make hard decisions, especially about schools that are such treasured and important resources in local communities. The hard reality is, however, that change cannot be avoided. What is uppermost in the recommendations being published today is that they are aimed at providing a better and more sustainable education for all pupils in Catholic schools in a given area: they represent change for the better, not just change for change’s sake.

As a Catholic community we are, in the words of the theme for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress to be celebrated in Dublin this June, a community that draws life, meaning and purpose from our communion with Christ and with one another. We are a community that does not believe that any one Catholic school can operate in isolation from the needs of the whole family of Catholic schools. Consideration for the rights and needs of all will demand the best use of available resources. This will inevitably require genuine cooperation, the sharing of resources and agreed admittance criteria within the family of Catholic schools. In a time of decreasing numbers of second level pupils and widening curricular demands, it is totally unacceptable that some Grammar schools are in effect becoming all ability schools, while local secondary schools bear all the negative consequences of educational change. What is happening in some areas is in fact the absorption ‘by stealth’ of secondary schools by local Grammar schools who are changing their entrance grade requirements to keep their numbers up. What is being proposed today seeks to address this injustice by ensuring more effective planning is put in place for the best long-term educational outcome in each area.  Critical to the success of this planning will be a willingness on the part of all to take into account the overall long-term prospects for sustainable Catholic education in a given area.

Bishop McKeown will address this matter in more detail. For my part, on behalf of all Trustees, I urge Catholic Schools and local communities to give these proposals a fair hearing. They are set before you for the common good of all pupils in your area so that the best possible educational outcomes can be achieved.

In commending this report to you today with enthusiasm and hope for the sustainable future it promises for all children in Catholic schools, let me thank you again for your presence here. I also want to thank Professor Peter Finn and the staff of Saint Mary’s University College for their hospitality and for making us so welcome here this morning for this important launch.




Bishop Dónal McKeown

There is a well know phrase in Brian Friel’s acclaimed play Philadelphia, here I come, where Gar says something to the effect that, “It’s all over and it’s all just about to begin.” That may be in some ways a summary of where we are this morning.

The welcome presence of Cardinal Brady makes it clear that this is a very significant date for education in general in NI and for Catholic education in particular. After all, I think that it is fair to say that this is perhaps a first time anywhere that an educational sector has undertaken such a root-and- branch review of its provision in the context of a huge number of meetings and a widespread consultation, in other words, in a fully transparent way and in the public gaze. And today the Trustees announce where we have got to in the process. It has taken huge effort by professional staff and an enormous amount of unpaid time by people at all levels. It has never been easy and often very difficult and stressful for many people as schools sought to find ways to engage with the process. So, in some ways, this report underlines how this stage is all over.

And what has this stage produced from all the paper, talk and discussion? We have tried to put down here in a very limited number of pages the core elements of our proposed way forward. In that sense, the report cannot attempt to do justice to the complexity of all the issues in each area across NI. These are, in many cases, the very broad outlines that the Catholic managed sector brings to the table as our contribution to developing the way forward for the entire education system here.

  • We have tried to point ways forward that will look after the welfare of children and retain the very high level of confidence that parents have demonstrated in Catholic schools.
  • We have attempted to acknowledge the outstanding work achieved in some schools that – according to DE principles – do not have a sustainable future, while accepting the hard demographic and economic facts.
  • We have underlined decisions that need to be taken soon in the interests of pupils – but have focussed on orderly transition planning so that no pupil is seen to suffer from hasty steps.
  • We have prioritised the structures that will allow for flexibility and maximised inter-sectoral work, while trying to ensure that damaging drift and uncertainty do not lead to paralysis and avoidable fears.

But, it is also true to say that it is all just about to begin!

These are proposals from Trustees. They are only words on paper. Now the implementation process has to start if we are to actually develop the top-quality educational system here that we will need and that our community deserves. This stage will not be easy. In Friel’s play, young Gar O’Donnell from Ballybeg had got to the eve of his departure for the USA. That had not been an easy journey. But now the rubber hits the road and his dream of travelling has to become a messy reality.

So what are the key challenges that face us over the next few years?

  • We have to make sure that we deliver a changed system that delivers quality education for all young people. That cannot be seen merely as a rationalisation process, driven by economics or demographics. If we do not deliver better educational outcomes, DFP may benefit in terms of saving money – but this will have been a hollow, heartless and vision-less use of time.
  • We have a number of small schools that cannot stand alone in the new environment. But just because those schools serve a limited population does not mean that they do not deliver great schooling to their pupils. As a system, we cannot afford to lose the expertise that those teachers have – vast pastoral wisdom, an enormous amount of dedicated creativity towards, and love for, their students and a huge level of curricular expertise. The teaching achievement of staff and pupils in these schools must not be abandoned or downplayed. These schools need to be treated with enormous respect at all levels to that their experience, dedication and talents are not treated as if they were some carcass to picked over by larger schools. I ask DE to ensure that, where pupils have to change from a closing school, the retention of the expertise and dignity of their staff is central.
  • Trustees are fully committed to moving away from the illusion of ‘academic selection’ at 10. It is neither possible to measure intelligence in a short exam at that age (as the results of too many grammar schools show) nor helpful in promoting achievement. The encouragement of the minority should not be predicated on the discouragement of the majority.  All pupils deserve access to the best opportunities – and we shouldn’t need treat a high class education as if it was in short supply and had to be fought over.
  • All change requires investment. Even making savings requires investment! We cannot develop our mediocre education system at zero cost.
  •  Finally, these are our proposals for our schools. In the publicly funded Catholic sector, we remain committed to acting in the interests of the common good. Much work needs to be done within the Catholic sector and with all our educational partners to create opportunities for our society to develop together. After all, we cannot ask our individual schools to think about the big picture and then have a merely Catholic perspective on the way forward. We cannot argue for partnership within our sector and not model the same principles with other education providers. But all will be done in the interests of diversity and cohesion. The Catholic Trustees will continue to act in the interests of young people and of our society. And we will continue to ask sometimes awkward questions of ourselves and of political leadership.

This morning we are grateful for what has been achieved. And that gives us confidence to build on the past and to face the future. Mar a deirtear sa Ghaeilge, “Bail ó Dhia ar ár n-obair”.


I propose very briefly to set out for you some key aspects of the report, particularly in respect of the approaches taken and the underlying rationale behind the different recommendations.

The context for the work that has been carried out is well documented and our recommendations were shaped in response to the consultation returns and in the pressing and ongoing need to re-shape our educational provision to maximize opportunities for all and to raise standards building on the high quality already evident in the sector. It is also clear that change has to be built on a new collaborative approach and all of our proposals/recommendations are offered on the basis of continuing to have full pro-active engagement with all sectors through the well established area learning communities.

In approaching this work over the past number of years, the trustees took an approach which was twin track in the sense that careful consideration was given both to the need to reshape their post-primary estate/schools and to the need to expand the curricular offer available to the young people who attend our schools. This latter work was done in close collaboration with colleagues form the ELBs, NICIE and the Comhairle and indeed significant progress has been made over the period with for example, currently over 80% of CCMS schools delivering the 18 or more subjects at KS4 and over 95% of the Catholic VGS delivering 18 or more subjects. It is clear, however with declining enrolments and reduced budgets, that a significant number of pupils in our schools will not enjoy that level of access without structural change.

This report has been delayed for some time. The reason for the delay was to enable us to take full account of the Minister’s policy statement of the 26th September 2011 –putting pupils first – shaping the future.

The outcome of the stress audits has been carefully factored in and as a consequence, influenced the recommendations particularly in respect of the potential timeframes set out for change. It has become clear that there is an urgent need to address the growing gaps for a significant minority of young people.

This is not to undermine or underplay the enormous contribution made by the Governors, principals and staff of those schools who have continued to focus tirelessly on providing high quality learning outcomes for the pupils in their care but it is clear that the current position is unsustainable and we believe that implementing planned change is now the best way forward.

As a consequence the report makes firm recommendations on consulting on the closure of a number of schools within the rest of this school year. Those consultations will be on the basis that the needs of the pupils affected can be met within the area and this will dictate the timeframe for change. Of course any such proposal for change will be subject to due process and require Ministerial approval for the proposed change.

Other recommendations are linked to the proposals for closure in that the needs of pupils within an area can only be met if another local school becomes larger. This is not the creation of a new school but rather the planned growth of existing schools to accommodate the additional pupils and, where possible and subject to Governor approval, accepting the transfers of staff in the schools affected by closure.

Other recommendations are for amalgamations of existing schools who individually are not viable or sustainable but together have the potential to create a strong educational provision either at 11 – 16 or potentially 11 – 19. We are not, however proposing amalgamations as a way forward where there is no potential to create a sustainable and viable school in line with the sustainable schools policy and the entitlement framework requirements.

Other recommendations are for the creation of strong, governed partnerships, particularly where we have schools which are viable or sustainable as individual schools but which would benefit from stronger forms of collaboration and sharing to maximize the use of the resources allocated to them. In some case we have proposed these as an approach within the sector, In others we support the opportunity to develop this on a cross-sectoral basis. Through the area planning process we are fully open to develop this approach still further. We must be clear, however, that for such partnerships to deliver we have taken the view that they must be sustainable and viable from within the resources allocated to them.

Yet other recommendations are that we need further work to be carried out. For example, in respect of the Belfast area, there was strong demand for the creation of a new school in the Crumlin Glenavy Lisburn Area and our recommendation is to carry out that development work. The outcome of that work will have significant impact on school provision in the greater Belfast area and as a consequence we need additional time to do that before making any significant changes in Belfast.

Finally, we have given a very clear commitment to full engagement in area planning and we offer these proposals as the sector’s contribution to area planning

Thank you.

Gerry Lundy