Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Temporary reprieve as Minister agrees rise in St. Paul’s admissions

A commitment by Education Minister John O’Dowd to allow extra Year 8 admissions to St. Paul’s High School in Bessbrook this September has been welcomed by the principal, Jarlath Burns, who says it is a source of great relief to all those who care about St. Paul’s and its role in educating the young people of south Armagh.

Having received its highest ever number of applications from prospective first years – 302 in total – St. Paul’s is over-subscribed by more than eighty for its 215 Year 8 places.  Following a request from the school, which was bolstered by lobbying from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, Minister O’Dowd agreed a temporary variation on admission numbers to allow an extra 24 pupils to be admitted at the beginning of the next school year.

While welcoming this commitment, Mr Burns says the school is keen to cater for every child wishing to attend and has expressed his disappointment for those who are unable to gain a place: “St. Paul’s is close to the hearts of the people of this area.  It is a school which has catered for the parents and grandparents of the children who are applying this year,” he said.

“As we approach our fiftieth year, it is important to reflect on the crucial role this school plays in the lives of the south Armagh community.  The numbers seeking to gain admission to the school are rising each year and we accept that the school will have to grow to reflect the increasing numbers who wish to receive non-selective education in their local school.”

The new MP for the area, Mickey Brady, welcomed the increase in admissions.  He, along with his colleagues Megan Fearon and Conor Murphy, met with the Education Minister and department representatives to explain the extenuating circumstances faced by St. Paul’s.  Offering his congratulations to the school and its new pupils, he said: “In many ways St Paul’s has been a victim of its own success in this regard; it now has such an exemplary reputation that parents are understandably keen for their children to go there, leading to it being over-subscribed every year. This is clearly a ringing endorsement of non-selective education and the wonderful community service offered by this school.”

SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley also appealed to the Minister on behalf of the school.

“It is the declared policy of the Department of Education that pupils should attend their local post-primary school and yet here we have a situation where children are being denied access to their local school.  My understanding is that the school wants to accommodate as many pupils as possible but is prevented from doing so by Department of Education rules,” he said, and he called for “as many pupils as possible” to be admitted to their local school of choice.

The green light from Minister O’Dowd offers a temporary reprieve for some incoming first year pupils however many sixth year students will face the same situation when applying for A level study in August, Mr Burns has revealed.

Owing to the extensive range of subjects on offer at A Level, already the school has received more than 80 expressions of interest from students in other schools who are seeking to pursue post-16 study at St. Paul’s.  This figure is on top of GCSE students currently attending the school who wish to continue with A Level study.

Mr Burns further revealed that the Board of Governors of St. Paul’s is currently working with the CCMS to examine the possibility of a development proposal to increase the of number Year 8 admissions for future intake.  For this move to be successful, it is believed the school will have to be extended to cater for the proposed increase in pupil numbers.

Prestigious award

Meanwhile, as a ringing endorsement of its supremacy, St. Paul’s has received a prestigious award in recognition of its active promotion of excellence in inclusion and the quality of its provision, The Examiner has learned.

The school has gained a coveted Inclusion Quality Mark (IQM) as a Centre of Excellence – the first post-primary school in the area to achieve such an award – and recognition for how it celebrates diversity and promotes its motto ‘Quality Education for All’.

To gain the award, St Paul’s was required to demonstrate that inclusion has a school-wide impact and is sustainable.  It does not depend on the school’s attainment in exam results but instead it focuses on learning and achievement in its widest sense and looks at how schools see differences as opportunities for learning.

The award was based on the results of an extensive assessment about the school and its values, and involved interviews with students, staff, parents and even bus drivers and staff from local shops.  The result of this led not just to the IQM award, but the identification of St. Paul’s as a Centre of Excellence.

Mr Burns expressed his delight in his school being recognized on such a national scale and paid tribute to the efforts of Mrs Bridget McConville, who coordinated the award process.  He also extended his deep appreciation to his predecessor, former principal Mr Oliver Mooney, whom he described as “one of the most inspirational people in education”.