Education Minister John O'Dowd often stresses his desire to give parents choice, yet frequently disregards the views of those same parents. A glaring example is his vision of shared schooling – building new campuses where schools of different ethos will operate side by side but with relatively little sharing of classrooms. Yet the overwhelming choice of parents is for proper integrated education where children of all creeds and none are taught together.
Now parents in the Craigavon area feel their views are also being ignored by the minister and the Southern Education and Library Board. They – like the principals of two controlled grammar schools in the area who have written to this newspaper – fear that a system of comprehensive education is about to be foisted on them. A vote to be taken at the SELB tomorrow could spell the end of the Dickson Plan in the area. This long-standing education system does away with selection at 11 and instead tests children at 14 years of age when they are more mature. It has widespread support among parents. In many ways it is an ideal compromise as the education system still struggles to come to terms with academic selection which the minister wants abandoned but which many grammar schools still retain. The parents and principals within the Dickson Plan area believe the latest move is a stealth attack on grammar schools.
They have a valid argument. While the minister may argue that the Dickson Plan is not fit for purpose, very many people disagree. At the very least there should be a comprehensive and transparent debate on the way forward. Instead of totally disregarding a system which has operated for some 40 years with strong public support, it should be examined to see if part, or all, of it can be adapted within the overall reform of education here. Education is one of the most important services provided by government and should not be tinkered with to fit into any single party's vision. The present chaos within education is due in significant part to disregarding public opinion.