Collegiate proposal ‘rejected’

STRONG and widespread public opposition to proposed changes in the controlled education sector in Lurgan and Craigavon have been outlined in a report published this week.

A consultation document, published by the Southern Education and Library Board, revealed that more than 73 per cent of people don’t see the need for change in the Craigavon Council area.

While there has been a welcome for the proposals in the Catholic maintained sector, the vast majority of respondents, more than 86 per cent, said they disagreed with plans for the controlled sector.

It is proposed that Lurgan College, Lurgan Junior High and Craigavon Senior High School will form a new collegiate, overseen by one principal and a single board of governors.

But the findings show continued backing in the community for the Dickson Plan, which sees automatic transfer at age 11 to a junior high school before academic selection at age 14.

Many respondents said that greater detail was needed in order to reach an informed opinion on the future of education here.

Some people felt there was an ‘absence of a clear statement as to how the proposed collegiate would promote greater equality of access to appropriate education for all young people than the current two-tier system’.

The board of governors at Lurgan College said the consultation findings were a vindication of the esteem in which the Dickson Plan is held. However, David Mehaffey of Craigavon Senior High voiced his frustration with the continuing uncertainty over the future of education in the area.

“Many respondents comment that the requirement for change is to address the financial and accommodation issues of Craigavon Senior High School,” the report stated.

There was also a feeling that grammar school provision should be preserved for young people in Lurgan and concern about the ‘potential disappearance or dilution’ of Lurgan College with young people moving to schools outside the area.

Principal of Craigavon Senior High School David Mehaffey said he was ‘disappointed by the lack of progress’ and that he had been hoping for something more concrete in the minister’s statement.

“There has been a long period of consultation already and I think that people’s positions are fairly well known by now. I don’t believe that further consultation is likely to result in those positions being changed. Uncertainty about the future is very damaging to all our schools and the time has surely arrived when those in positions of authority are going to have to make decisions that have little likelihood of pleasing everyone.”

Referring to what has happened in the maintained sector in Lurgan Mr Mehaffey commented that progress is possible. “I have no doubt that the proposals that are on the table required difficult choices and much heart searching on the part of the people involved, but a plan was put together and is being progressed. The same thing needs to happen in the controlled sector and it needs to happen urgently. We need decisions so that the community and the schools themselves can see the way forward.”

A spokesman for Lurgan College’s Board of Governors said: “The grave concerns regarding the Collegiate structure, expressed by the Board of Governors of Lurgan College in the consultation exercise, are very much reflected in the responses by the community.

“Clearly the current Dickson Plan structure (with its system of delayed academic selection at age 14) commands almost universal support by the community and its retention, which will guarantee the position of Lurgan College as a selective 14-19 Grammar School, will now form the central tenet of any future arrangement.

“There are other options within the Dickson Plan framework which will address the much publicised accommodation issues at Craigavon Senior High. The Board of Governors of Lurgan College will welcome the opportunity to explore these further with officers from SELB in due course.”

The College also said that should the SELB feel the Dickson Plan is unsustainable, the governors would ‘be obliged to pursue an alternative model whereby the young people of Lurgan would have access to a high quality and prestigious 11-19 grammar school’.

The College governors also questioned the financial deficit and current accommodation issues at Craigavon Senior High School

The criticisms came as Education Minister, John O’Dowd, set out this week the next steps for area planning of education.

The Minister said he is to set up a steering group to bring the current plans forward with membership from the controlled, maintained, integrated and Irish-medium sectors.

Mr O’Dowd said: “Plans for some areas are well developed and can, I hope, be progressed in their current form. In Lurgan, for example, there are firm proposals for amalgamations in the Catholic maintained sector.”

DUP MLA Stephen Moutray said the findings of the consultation amounted to a rejection of the collegiate plan. “The consultation results have clearly demonstrated the fact that the vast majority of people who responded to the consultation are not in favour of the Collegiate structure. This gives a clear indication to the Department of Education and Southern Education and Library Board that the people of Craigavon and wider afield are very content with the current Dickson Plan structure with academic selection at the age 14.”

Upper Bann UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson welcomed the support for the Dickson Plan. She said, “The results of the public response are no surprise whatsoever as we have always known that widespread support exists in Craigavon for the Dickson Plan. I urge the Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd not to simply ignore these views when taking decisions which will impact on the future of our children, and indeed our children’s children.”