Why Schools selection is a GAA issue
NOW THAT the major schools GAA competitions are over, it is time to pay tribute to a group of people who run these matches with outstanding efficiency, economy and effort.
This is the Ulster GAA Colleges committee, a small band of volunteers who produce a set of fixtures to rival any county board, with no headquarters, no full time staff and very little finance.
Schools are not clubs, they don’t need to worry about who is going to do the bar on Friday night, or how much the lotto took in, or if enough money came in this month to pay the loan. All they need to focus on is making their teams play good football.
Added to this is the discipline and respect for the referee that the teachers instil in their pupils and much that we want to see from our games ends up on show at these matches. I’d say the game between the Abbey and Maghera was probably the best game of football played this year.
Ulster Colleges GAA is not elitist. They welcome teams from other sectors. Our school, St Paul’s Bessbrook, has been residing in this territory now for four years and will be in the MacRory next year and if Holy Trinity Cookstown decide they want to step up too, they will be met with open arms. However, while the committee themselves are inclusive, the system out of which they operate is anything but, and this is where the GAA needs to step in.
It is hard to avoid the fact that a turf war is going on at present between the grammar schools on one side with the government and Catholic Church on the other, based round the ‘What We Have We Hold’ principle. And what they have is quite plush indeed. At age 11, they cream off the best primary sevens for themselves and shove the rest into the ‘Vocational’ sector.
These great Catholic schools, apparently committed to the ‘education of the whole person’, residing in sumptuous diocesan grounds with beautiful facades and fantastic facilities, wouldn’t let a child without a certain intellectual ability past their beautiful wrought iron gates for love nor money (well maybe money, though since boarding stopped, the rich and thick have to find another way of buying their places).
Of course, when they have filled all their places with As, they go down the alphabet until they come to the Ds and if a primary seven has done the test and failed and there is a place, they will take him too. Not so much every child a number, as every child a letter.
When the government decided that this was unjust and proposed change, they refused to budge. And when the Catholic Church, who actually own the properties and the ethos to which these schools apparently belong, stepped in and said, ‘Look lads, the party is over’, they told them to get stuffed too.
This shows the utter arrogance of this sector; that they believe their anti-Catholic method of selection is more important than the future of education itself. The line, ‘Suffer little Children to come onto me,’ for these schools continues…
‘As long as you have an A in the ridiculously inaccurate unregulated tests for primary seven children for which we have enlisted private companies to run for us on property owned by the Catholic Church who don’t even agree with our policy of selection.’
The Church itself has to share some of the blame because it has been weak in standing up to these schools. Many of them have bishops as chair of governors, some of whom secretly enjoy the dripping tradition of these results factories and would recoil at the thought of ‘ordinary’ children passing through their hallowed doors.
They claim that this tradition is part of the fabric of these schools, but this sounds too much like the Augusta Golf Club using the same argument for not letting women or even black people up until the late 90s, become members.
And they’re great at perpetuating this two tier system themselves. Ten years ago when two new Catholic schools sprung up to cope with the burgeoning Catholic population in south Belfast, instead of embracing equality and making the schools comprehensive, they created a grammar and a secondary and called one Aquinas after the noble scholar and the other St Joseph’s after the humble carpenter. A lovely set of labels to give the new first year pupils.
All of this for fear that the new middle class Catholics might send their children to Methody or Inst. if they had no grammar school to go to. A really inspirational rationale.
The injustice is stark. On my very first day as a new pupil in St Colman’s Newry, 1st September 1979 aged 11, I saw it with my own two eyes when we, the lucky clever boys got rewarded with a beautiful college at the end of a sweeping avenue, while over the hill, in full view from our fantastic Art room, was the rundown, gloomy building of St Joseph’s Secondary School for those boys who had committed the sin of not passing their 11 plus.
In between were the pristine College football fields and, I kid you not, the College farm. I knew something was wrong in education then, aged 1. It is still wrong.
So what has this got to do with the GAA?
Quite a lot actually, for as long as we have a Colleges sector and a Vocational sector, we are bedfellows in this charade. And the GAA is now being used as a tool by these schools to get one over the other one.
Vast sums of money, resources and time are being invested to win the MacRory which wouldn’t be out of place in the Leinster Schools Rugby scene and some of the tactics used to recruit players border on the laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
Schools who revel in their ‘academic ethos’, suddenly going all pastoral and allowing boys from local secondaries with two GCSEs in to do A Levels. (as long as they can play football, who cares if they end up with three U grades) Meanwhile, ordinary lads are told their five GCSE’s aren’t good enough for a place in Upper Sixth.
So in these colleges, there is an elite within an elite and inevitably, this breeds resentment among the other lads, the good club players who can’t make the team, the boys who are unfortunate enough not to be good at football, and those who love the arts, the orchestra and the choir, who feel like second class citizens.
I see within the recently launched GAA Post Primary Strategy, there are plans for a ‘root and branch’ review of all schools football in 2014. This date sounds very much like the ‘we’re going to sort all this out in two years time’ line we’re hearing from the Catholic Church and the government here.
For example, in their strategic plan, the Northern Ireland Council for Catholic Education has ambitious proposals to make every school answerable to its geographical catchment area as opposed to the attainment of children aged 11. It is a sound, sensible document.
However, Newry is seen as such a powerhouse of grammar school tradition, that they have decided to do absolutely nothing there for two years. And in two years time they will do the same because they’re all afraid of these schools when the answer is beautifully simple.
Tell them if they want to continue with their ridiculous nonsense of selection, tradition and elitism that they can do so, but without any funding from the Department of Education, nor on property belonging to the Catholic Church.
But the GAA can and needs to take a lead on this. Establish a simple divisional league for MacRory, MacLarnon, Markey and other competitions and allow schools to decide themselves where they belong. Whether a school is a grammar or a secondary should be irrelevant.
And the grammar schools too need to catch themselves on. They are contributing most to burn out of talented players with their ridiculous training demands on lads from September to March, making players pawns in their mission to make their school more elite and with better traditions than the others.
Change is needed, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The grammars will continue to ‘walk their traditional route’ as long as they are allowed to.