Northern Ireland

Merging four County Down Catholic schools 'is right'

Donal McKeown
Image caption Bishop McKeown said pupils elsewhere had not suffered when academic selection ended

Merging four Catholic post-primary schools in County Down would be the "right thing", the Bishop of Derry has said.

Donal McKeown's comments came in emails to parents opposed to the proposals, seen by the BBC.

He was writing in his role as chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS).

A consultation on the plans, which have provoked a mixed reaction, is due to end on 16 May.

Bishop McKeown was emailed by a number of parents expressing concern about the possible merger of De La Salle High School, St Mary's High School, St Patrick's Grammar School, all based in Downpatrick, and St Columba's College, Portaferry.

One said that the amalgamation would "destroy" St Patrick's Grammar School.

Image caption There have been mixed reactions from parents to the prosposals

In reply, the bishop said the future of the schools lay with the trustees and the Diocese of Down and Connor.

However, he said that education which did not rely on academic selection would benefit everyone.

"If some people choose not to go with the proposed way forward, that is their choice," he wrote.

"That does not mean that trustees should fail to do the right thing."

However, in a follow-up email Bishop McKeown was asked by one parent: "Can you provide me with evidence from elsewhere in NI that suggests non-selective education benefits everybody including the high achievers?"

'Catholics denied'

He was also informed that a number of Catholic boys would seek to go to the nearby controlled grammar, Down High School, if the merger went ahead.

"Catholic boys are being denied a Catholic grammar school education," he was told.

In response, Bishop McKeown said that pupils elsewhere had not suffered due to the end of academic selection in their area.

"The most entrepreneurial part of Northern Ireland is an area between Bellaghy and Dungannon - where most pupils do not go to grammar schools," he wrote.

Bishop McKeown also suggested that pupils in grammar schools were more likely to leave their home area when they finished school.

'Don't destroy our children'

"We need those creative skills to stay locally, not more professionals who study away and stay away," he said.

"The Catholic Church has been offering a particular model of education of many centuries.

"We will continue to prioritise the needs of the disadvantaged."

However, he was subsequently told that the Church was ignoring the fact that a large percentage of parents wanted a grammar education for their children.

"The Church and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) are ignoring this major point," one parent replied.

"Fix what needs fixing, but don't destroy our children and their religion with it."

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