College heads join forces to save the Dickson Plan

Back row from left, Trevor Robinson, Lurgan College Principal, and Simon Harper, Portadown College Principal. Front from left, Peter Aiken, chairman of Portadown College board of govenors, and Stanley Abraham, Chairman of Lurgan College board of govenors. INLM16-208.
Back row from left, Trevor Robinson, Lurgan College Principal, and Simon Harper, Portadown College Principal. Front from left, Peter Aiken, chairman of Portadown College board of govenors, and Stanley Abraham, Chairman of Lurgan College board of govenors. INLM16-208.
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THE boards of governors of Portadown and Lurgan Colleges have this week launched a determined campaign to retain the Dickson Plan for Education.

In an unprecedented move, the governors, with the full support of principals - Simon Harper (Portadown) and Trevor Robinson (Lurgan) - have rejected the “comprehensive education plan” proffered by Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd (Upper Bann) and by the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB).

Instead, they want the Dickson Plan - launched in 1968 - retained in its present form, with a sixth form created in Craigavon Senior High School (CSHS). This would double the length of time that students would remain at the school from two years to four and significantly expanding the scope of courses available at CSHS. The senior high would ultimately be on a single site, probably in Portadown’s Lurgan Road, solving the on-going problems of the controversial and restrictive Kitchen Hill campus in Lurgan.

The joint action by the two sets of governors has been prompted by a recent survey covering Lurgan and Portadown, showing that 83 per cent of the population supports the retention of Dickson, with its selection ethos at 14+, and that only eight per cent favour the O’Dowd-SELB move for a Collegiate network, which the governors reject as “comprehensive education”.

In a joint press statement - entitled ‘Colleges say ‘NO’ to Comprehensive Education’ - the governors insist, “This (survey) is in marked contrast to the Minister of Education’s view that the Dickson Plan is no longer fit for purpose”.

The statement goes on to reject ‘Option A’ from the Department-SELB which plumps for “the creation of so-called bilateral (all ability/comprehensive) 14-19 schools in Portadown and Lurgan”.

In Lurgan, the town’s junior high school would not be affected - the only post-11 school in Craigavon untouched - as it would remain on a single site. But the O’Dowd blueprint would amalgamate Lurgan College and the town’s campus of CSHS on another site.

In Portadown, Killicomaine JHS, Clounagh JHS and Tandragee JHS would be united on a single site, again with a 14-19 Collegiate uniting Portadown College and the town’s CSHS Campus on a site separate from the junior highs.

The governors state, “This will lead to the destruction of controlled (State) grammar school education across Craigavon. The resulting comprehensive schools will deny choice for parents and inevitably lead to considerable migration of young people out of the area, the destabilisation of local education provision and the skewing of local primary school curricula. This flies in the face of the Minister’s claimed commitment to ‘parental choice and putting pupils first’.”

The education board, though, examines an Option B - which the governors support - in line with the creation of a bespoke single 14-19 single campus for CSHS. But governors claim that the SELB has little stomach for that second option. The governors reiterate that such a four-year plan for CSHS (instead of the current two years) would guarantee the economic viability and sustainability of the school and would retain grammar school provision at Lurgan and Portadown Colleges with the opportunity to develop meaningful collaboration - the governors concede that CSHS does not enjoy long-term sustainability under the two-year ethos and that a doubling would solve most of its problems.

The governors’ press statement ends that this option “will enjoy robust and community support and release the much-needed capital for long overdue new school builds - it has the unequivocal support of both Lurgan and Portadown Colleges.” Indeed, both schools were pencilled in for a £multi-million expansion five years ago, but are still waiting. And educationalists throughout Craigavon are angry that primary schools have yet to be consulted on the changes.

The governors’ statement points out that the SELB aims to take its decision on June 26 and calls on the community to make its views known on the future of post-primary education in Craigavon in advance of the meeting.

This can be done in writing directly to Mr Tony Murphy, Chief Executive, the Southern Education and Library Board, 3 Charlemont Place, The Mall, Armagh, BT61 9AX (selb.hq@selb.org) or to local political representatives.