EDUCATION minister John O’Dowd has described as ‘offensive’ remarks by Upper Bann MLA Sam Gardiner that he was involved in dismantling the Dickson Plan and it was the latest ‘in a cultural war Sinn Fein is waging against Unionism’.
Mr O’Dowd told the Mail: “It is offensive to me to suggest that I have anything other than the best educational interests of all children at the forefront of everything I do as Education Minister. There is no ‘cultural war’, as Sam Gardiner puts it, involved in working to deliver the right type of school in the right place for all local children.
“I would also reiterate that no final decisions have yet been taken on the future of schools in the Dickson Plan area. The Southern Education and Library Board has lead responsibility in the first instance for bringing forward development proposals for any change to these schools for consideration.
“Any such proposals are subject to a statutory two month consultation period during which anyone with an interest can make their views known. I can ASSURE Mr Gardiner and everyone else that I will take into account all relevant information, such as enrolments, attainment and financial figures among other factors, when making any decisions. I can also assure Mr Gardiner that the political affiliation, if any, of local residents is not one of these factors.”
Mr O’Dowd also said he was mystified by comments from Upper Bann MLA Stephen Moutray who had demanded answers from the Minister and the SELB regarding what he described as ‘secret discussions’ on the future of schools in the Dickson Plan area.
Mr Moutray had described the consultation process as ‘nothing more than a sham’.
He said: “The Minister and all involved need to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding discussions and a planned meeting with Lurgan Junior High School, Craigavon Senior High School and Minister O’Dowd on 6th November 2012.”
Mr O’Dowd said: ““I am mystified as to what ‘veil of secrecy’ Stephen Moutray is referring to. My Department and I have been open and transparent throughout this process. Information has been freely released in the Assembly chamber, in meetings and indeed through the Freedom of Information process.
“The documentation referred to in Mr Moutray’s statement was not prepared by anyone in my Department. In fact it was presented to me by representatives from Craigavon Senior High and Lurgan Junior High Schools.
“It is very irresponsible to suggest that any Departmental officials have acted inappropriately in this process. That is absolutely not true and I would urge DUP representatives to exercise caution when making unsubstantiated claims. If anyone has any evidence of such behaviour they should bring this forward to me.”