Major shake-up for Downpatrick Catholic schools

Major shake-up for Downpatrick Catholic schools

7 March 2018

PLANS for a historic shake-up of Catholic secondary education in Downpatrick are to be publicly unveiled.

An ambitious proposal to create a single ‘super college’ through the merger of the town’s three Catholic secondary schools is expected to be confirmed at the launch of a long-awaited consultation on the future of post-primary provision.

Parents of De La Salle High School, St  Mary’s High School and St Patrick’s Grammar School have been urged to attend the first stage of the major consultation exercise next Thursday afternoon when meetings will be held simultaneously in each of the three schools.

Staff and governors will be informed about the details of the proposal during similar meetings throughout the same afternoon.

In an unexpected move, it has been revealed that the future of St Columba’s College in Portaferry will also be considered as part of the same consultation.

Education chiefs are understood to be considering a junior-only campus in Portaferry for Year 8-10 students, with GCSE pupils commuting to the Downpatrick college.

Details of the preferred way forward are being tightly guarded by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools and trustees of the De La Salle congregation, who are overseeing the rationalisation project.

However, the trustees have been clear for many years that their vision for the area is the creation of an all-ability co-educational 11-19 age group school that will provide a “high standard of education for all pupils in the area.”

Such a college would accommodate up to 1,600 pupils, comprising 680 from St Patrick’s Grammar School, 411 from St Mary’s High School, 370 from De La Salle High School and up to 100 GCSE students from Portaferry. 

It would represent one of the biggest school mergers in Northern Ireland and, if approved, would spell an end to a long tradition of single sex education in Downpatrick.

The possibility of the single all-ability campus was first put forward in a major review of secondary education launched by the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education in 2010, which called for an an end to single sex and academically selective education for the town.

Until now the project has been stymied by St Patrick’s Grammar School’s Board of Governors, who are determined to maintain academic selection and the associated grammar school status.

In a statement issued late last year, the governors’ chairman, Dr Aidan Hamill, insisted that St Patrick’s will not take part in an all ability amalgamation.

“It is our hope and belief that a way can be found to realise the trustees’ vision to provide for the best possible education for all of the pupils of the Downpatrick area,” he said.

“However, this must include the most academically gifted and therefore as long as academic selection is used by competing grammar schools in Northern Ireland, it will continue to be used by St Patrick’s Grammar School.

“We would like to categorically state that St Patrick’s Grammar School will not take part in any such amalgamation.”

The school’s newly appointed principal, Mr Joe McCann, this week reiterated that the Red High would not forego its grammar status.

“I am employed by the governors who have put their trust in me to lead the school in challenging times,” he said.

“I would encourage our staff, parents and governors to make their views and opinions known. We will continue to use academic selection as long as other schools in Northern Ireland continue to do so.”

It is not yet clear whether the forthcoming proposal will appease St Patrick’s Grammar School’s governors through the inclusion of some form of academic selection. 

In the ongoing merger of St Louis’ Grammar School and St Columban’s College in Kilkeel, for example, which was resisted by the grammar school on similar grounds, the CCMS has decided to undertake a bilateral approach in which 40 per cent of pupils will be selected through the transfer test with the remainder admitted on the basis of where they live.

Any final proposal made by the CCMS and trustees for Downpatrick and Portaferry will be subject to a statutory consultation period before a decision is made by the Department of Education. The most likely date for the launch of a new school would be September 2020.

A spokeswoman for the CCMS and the De La Salle congregation yesterday confirmed they were now ready to present their vision for future provision and to consider feedback before coming to a final decision.

“We believe this presents an exciting opportunity for post-primary education in the area and look forward to embarking on the consultation in order that people can learn more about what is involved,” she said.

St Mary’s High School principal Mrs Sheila Darling, De La Salle High School principal Mr Ciaran Maguire, and Mr Michael Breen, from St Columba’s College, in Portaferry, declined to comment.