Meeting the needs of young people in schools

St Mary's College Principal Marie Lindsay.
St Mary's College Principal Marie Lindsay.

In this article, MARIE LINDSAY, Principal of St. Mary’s College in Derry, examines the newly-published “Together Towards Tomorrow” proposals which, she says, present significant challenges for every Catholic school in the city.

While it is natural to focus on how these proposals would affect our individual schools, what is needed is a focus on how these proposals might provide opportunities and access to the best possible education for all our young people.

We have surely learned in recent years the dangers of making decisions that are about preserving our institutions rather than making decisions that are based on what is right for all our young people.

The proposal for all post primary schools to be co-ed is not new. Many of our single sex schools schools already, through collaboration, have co-ed glasses in sixth form.

Catholic education recognises the central role of the family so separating brothers and sisters who have been educated in the same primary school is hard to justify.

I know one family where the four children attend four separate post primary Catholic schools. Surely we can better meet the needs of young people in similar situations and their families?

Our education system, as it currently operates, is all about a race to the top. Such a system means that schools compete against each to have the best results, come top of the league and be the best school.

Academic selection supports this race for supremacy but it also leads to a sort of gerrymandering by admissions criteria with disproportionately higher levels of disadvantaged pupils concentrated in non-selective schools.

There are two Catholic post primary schools in Derry, less than a mile apart, one with 7% Free School Meal entitlement the other with 67% Free School Meal entitlement.

For a city that has an international reputation on the stance that it took for civil rights, social justice and equality in the 1960s, it is astonishing that many people choose to either ignore or condone such glaring inequalities in our schools.

The revised curriculum and the Entitlement Framework are taught in all schools and all pupils do thd esame GCSE and A’ Level exams. As an all ability school, every year we see pupils who could have attended any local grammar schools achieve top grades in examinations in our school.

Interestingly, alongside them, we also see pupils who were refused entry to our grammar schools or who choose not to sit an entrance exam perform on a par with the potential grammar school pupils. Their high academic achievements belie the need for academic selection.

A vibrant Sixth Form raises the bar both for both staff and pupils and can be a real aspiration for younger pupils in the school. The proposal to take sixth forms out of all our schools and have one or two sixth form colleges is possibly the most challenging of the proposals. The Entitlement Framework becomes a legal requirement from September 2013 and every pupil must have access to 27 subjects, a third of which must be vocational.

In order to meet this, many of our pupils travel to one or more schools to get their A level courses. It requires a lot of planning, collaboration and resourcing. It is also very costly in terms of time travelling between schools and in terms of transport costs. Even with this collaboration, the annual curriculum audit carried out by the Foyle Learning Community identifies the large number of courses running in our sixth forms with classes of fewer than ten pupils.

Surely this means that, in all our school, there is a disproportionate allocation of resources to sixth form to the detriment of other key stages. Given the adverse financial outlook for education for the foreseeable future, can we afford the huge cost of both collaboration and small class post 16? A large sixth form college could address some of these inefficiencies.

Statistics from the Child Poverty Action Group, one of the key members of the End Child Poverty Campaign (ECP), reveal that, in some areas of Derry, more than 60% of children are currently living in poverty. Across the city, 36%, more than one in three of children, live in poverty.

If Catholic education in Derry is to do ‘what it says on the tin’, it must first and foremost seek to meet the needs of these young people. I see these proposals as having the potential do just that.