Schools change ‘overdue’

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“THERE are too many aspects of our current system that disappoint me,” the principal of Craigavon Senior High School has said.

Mr David Mehaffey made the comment during his speech at the school’s annual prizegiving.

Commenting on the future of the two-tier Dickson plan he said: “Much has been said and written about the need to protect the Craigavon two-tier system of education and I am fully aware of the high regard in which it is held by many people. Like everyone else I can identify its strengths and I am more than happy to acknowledge them.”

However, he said the impact on Craigavon Senior High School could not be disguised, with some very serious problems that cannot be disregarded.

He said: “These are problems – and I need to make this clear – that are related to the way in which the two tier system operates and not to the quality of provision in this or any other individual school.”

He said changes to the Two Tier system were inevitable and added: “I also believe that they are long overdue.”

He pointed to the viability audit to be completed by December and said this exercise will inevitably expose stresses within the two tier system.

He pointed to fluctuating pupils numbers at the Senior High when their budget was cut by £300,000 as the result of their smallest intake for a decade: “It must be obvious to everyone that such a situation cannot be sustained, and it is to address this and one other issue that changes of some kind will have to be made.

“That other issue is the inadequacy of the accommodation on our Lurgan campus where, for sixteen years, Craigavon Senior High School has functioned without facilities that any other school in Northern Ireland would take for granted. .

He said whatever solution is arrived at would have an impact elsewhere in the system and “is likely to be contentious”.

He went on: “I have already heard the suggestion that all our pupils should be brought together on one site, which, for obvious reasons, will not be our current site in Lurgan. I suspect that some people would see this not just as a solution to the accommodation problem but also as a solution to the financial problem.

“Unfortunately, although superficially attractive, this is a course of action that carries considerable risks. Certainly from a Lurgan perspective there is the potential for long lasting negative consequences, particularly for post-primary enrolments and community cohesion. And it would still not have the effect of putting the school on a sound financial footing, for a two year key stage 4 school cannot cope with the financial consequences of rapidly changing pupil numbers.

“Earlier in these remarks I also expressed the view that changes to the two tier system were long overdue, and with the pupils of Craigavon Senior High School in mind I would like to briefly develop that theme.”

He said: “Sixteen years in inadequate accommodation is far too long and nothing justifies a continuing failure on the part of the authorities to provide a resolution to this problem.”

The difficulties associated with managing the finances of the school, he said, have also become acute.

He went on: “This issue also needs to be tackled urgently – not just for accounting purposes but also for the detrimental impact that it has on pupils. Rapid changes to pupil numbers result in frequent adjustments to staffing and a reduction in the continuity of teaching while financial insecurity hampers effective forward planning in areas such as curriculum development and resourcing.”

He went on: “Other issues also need to be addressed. In their recent deliberations on a pre-consultation exercise in Lurgan the Southern Education and Library Board’s Advisory Sub-Committee for Controlled Schools acknowledged that a disproportionate percentage of the available cohort was selected to grammar school. In such circumstances Craigavon Senior High School is denied an additional tier of motivated, hard working pupils that would have much to contribute to the development of a positive, high achieving ethos throughout the school. This is unfair both to the pupils who attend this school and to the teachers who work here.

“The timing of the transfer process does no favours to any of our schools. For the junior high schools it comes before the completion of the Key Stage 3 curriculum and leaves a block of time in May and June when it can be difficult to maintain the motivation of pupils. The senior schools, on the other hand, would benefit from having more time to work with new pupils on option choices and to complete what is a very complex timetabling exercise.

“I could continue. For example, is it fair that our pupils, unlike their counterparts in the grammar schools, have to go through a transfer process twice – after years 10 and 12 – with a corresponding lack of continuity? And is it fair to Craigavon Senior High School’s most academic pupils that the process by which some of them seek admission to local sixth forms tends to be weighted against them?

“However, the time has come to bring this report to an end and I want to finish by emphasising what I have not said. I have deliberately avoided making suggestions about the way forward because any suggestions I would make would inevitably reflect my own ideological preferences. I have not attributed the need for change to the Minister of Education’s political agenda because in our situation that is not the case. What I hope I have done is challenge some commonly held views about the two tier system and begin the process of preparing people for the changes that must surely come.

“Whatever decisions are made concerning the future of education in Craigavon, there is one straightforward measure against which they must be judged – their recognition that all children, regardless of their different abilities, social backgrounds or educational needs, are of equal value as human beings and deserve to be treated with equal respect. That is certainly what I will be seeking in the coming months, for it is in that regard that there are too many aspects of our current system that disappoint me.”