Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

O'Dowd riding roughshod over parents in policy row

Peter Robinson called a halt to a terrorist 'shrine' at the Maze. Now he must do the same to Sinn Fein's attempts to scrap the Dickson Plan, writes Jo-Anne Dobson

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

As the mother of two sons, I know how important it is that our education system helps children to grow, mature and reach their full potential.

As a politician, I have always drawn on my own family experience, rather than taking a purely political stance.

When decisions are blatantly wrong it is important that those in authority sit up and listen to the real concerns of the public.

That is why I welcome the DUP's U-turn on the fatally flawed policy to build what would inevitably have become a terrorist shrine at the Maze prison site.

This decision was a victory for victims and all those who joined us in the campaign to oppose its construction.

But it must not stop there. In his 12-page Maze U-turn letter, the first minster mentions his party's veto, saying: "You know we have a veto over the content of any proposal."

It is now time for Peter Robinson to use his party's numbers and work with the Ulster Unionist Party to stop Sinn Fein's plans to destroy the Dickson Plan education system in Craigavon and show a similar willingness to recognise the majority view of parents whose only interest is the welfare and future of their children.

Peter Robinson must recognise the very real hurt and anger being felt in the community at the Sinn Fein-led plan to destroy the Dickson Plan – a system which for generations has delivered academic excellence for the children of Craigavon.

The system removes the downsides to selection at 11, accommodates those children who are late developers and provides a model school structure, from which aspects could be used as a blueprint for the future of post-primary education across Northern Ireland.

The local community was left reeling in June by the SELB's betrayal of public opinion by voting in support of area planning 'Option A', which would effectively end the Dickson Plan – an education system which is much-loved by parents, teachers and pupils alike.

This was in spite of the fact that a previous public consultation on area planning had shown more than 80% support for the retention of the plan.

During a head-to-head television debate in June, Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd challenged me to back up my assertions that the Dickson Plan was a hugely successful education system.

Well, the facts speak for themselves. If Mr O'Dowd were to take time to read the most recent Education and Training Inspectorate reports of controlled schools within the Dickson catchment area, it may make uncomfortable reading for him, because these reports expose the myths he has been peddling.

In 2010, the quality of education provided by Killicomaine Junior High School and Tandragee Junior High School was graded as being 'good' and 'very good'. Indeed, Tandragee was described as "meeting very effectively the educational and pastoral needs of the children".

Lurgan College's inspection in 2012 graded the quality of provision as 'very good', while Craigavon Senior High School was graded as 'good', with the inspectors saying "the school has important strengths in most of its educational and pastoral provision".

These are not the inspection reports of failing schools, or, indeed, of schools in need of radical change, as supported by both the SELB and the Sinn Fein-led department.

John O'Dowd would be well-advised to revisit these inspection reports and take time to digest their contents again. But the reality in Craigavon is that the views of the majority of local people are being ridden roughshod over, in pursuit of a Sinn Fein comprehensive agenda.

Sensible solutions, rather than those steeped in political dogma, are needed. That is why it is important that Peter Robinson listens to the majority view and uses his party's numbers and works with the Ulster Unionist Party to stop John O'Dowd in his tracks.

This would preserve the Dickson Plan for future generations of our children.

Jo-Anne Dobson is Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann

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