School leaders have accused Education Minister John O’Dowd of having “a hefty political agenda” to axe grammar schools in the Craigavon area.
The principals of two controlled grammar schools operating within the Dickson Plan have warned that Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) plans — due to be rubber-stamped tomorrow — will lead to a comprehensive education system.
In a joint statement to the Belfast Telegraph, Simon Harper from Portadown College and Trevor Robinson of Lurgan College said: “On Wednesday the SELB is set to make a determination on the future of post-primary controlled schools in Craigavon. This decision, for which there is evidence of it being a foregone conclusion, is likely to see the demise and destruction of the much cherished and successful Dickson Plan.
“The good people of Craigavon, on whose behalf we write, need to be aware of a hefty political agenda, driven by the SELB at the behest of DE (Department of Education) and the minister, subsequently forcing the death of the Dickson Plan.
"Should the SELB proceed with option A (creating of two bilateral schools) as a development proposal it would wilfully neglect and dismiss the views of the community and expose it to great risk of having an unwanted and untested educational provision imposed by a minister who shows little regard for democracy and fails to live up to his own mantra of putting pupils first and giving parents choice.”
Mr O’Dowd told the Assembly: “Area planning is about providing strong, vibrant schools, delivering high-quality education by using the limited resources available efficiently. In that context, it’s my firm view the Dickson Plan is no longer fit for purpose.
“The Catholic education sector in Craigavon proposes moving away from the Dickson Plan and academic selection. I believe that the best course of action for the controlled sector is to do likewise for the educational benefit of all the children and young people in that sector.”
The SELB will meet tomorrow to determine the future of post-primary provision in Craigavon, where academic selection is delayed until 14, unlike 11 elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
There are two options on the table for the crunch meeting. Option A would lead to a comprehensive system and option B a similar system to the existing one.
The Catholic sector has already published plans to merge its only grammar school, St Michael’s, with St Paul’s High and St Mary’s Junior High in Lurgan. But it emerged last week that SELB is expected to opt for ‘A’ despite overwhelming public support for option B.
An SELB spokesman said: “Although the board has not yet taken a decision in relation to specific proposals aimed at ensuring sustainability for the much-cherished Dickson Plan into the future, the options brought forward are in the context of preserving the two-tier system and consolidating its successes.”
DUP MLA Stephen Moutray repeated his party’s support for Dickson and accused the minister of trying to destroy it.
He said yesterday: “There has been a concerted effort on Minister O’Dowd’s behalf to destroy the Dickson two-tier system which has served the people of Craigavon and Tandragee well for over four decades.
“Parents and children are clear in their support for Dickson and the overwhelming majority have recently demonstrated this by writing to the SELB to support Option B which retains the system as is and build a new school for the Senior High School, Lurgan and Portadown campus on one site within the borough.
“People do not want comprehensive education forced upon them and to that end we have been given a mandate to fight for the retention of Dickson.”
SELB has put forward two proposals. Option A would see Lurgan Junior High (currently 11-14) remain while two 14-19 schools, Lurgan College and Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High, as well as Portadown College, would be created.
Three junior highs (11-14) would amalgamate. Option B would see the current system remain.