Excuse to do nothing

FROM:- Johnny Appleseed (name and address supplied).

As someone who is working for change in the Controlled Sector of education I was disappointed by the interview with Mr O’Dowd in the ‘MAIL’. Of course as Minister of Education Mr O’Dowd has an input into this debate. Unfortunately, many people reading the interview will perceive it as an exercise in political opportunism, and provide them with an escape mechanism

For quite some time now a growing number in our community has been trying to drag people from the Controlled Sector kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. Unfortunately, the whole tenor of Mr O’Dowd’s remarks has handed them an excuse to do nothing, and to continue languishing in the past. Instead of sitting down and considering that there may be a problem that needs to be addressed, they will fire statistics at it - and you know what they say about statistics.

By using the interview as an opportunity to promote comprehensive education he has handed people in the Controlled Sector who resist change, people with the same mindset resisted the Dickson Plan, the excuse to continue with the status quo. They don’t seem to realise that they cannot continue to resist change. Change is coming, indeed it has arrived, and we have to make up our minds if we are going to shape it, or will others, who may have a political agenda, shape it. Are we going to give a lead, or play catch-up?

Mr O’Dowd says we have to have parental choice - as long as we choose what he wants. It reminds me of Henry Ford’s statement “You can have any colour of car you want as long as it’s black”. He talks about “things evolving”, and they will, and he’s in a position to ensure they will evolve in the right direction. If people in the Controlled Sector don’t rouse themselves sufficiently, then the grammar schools in the Dickson Plan may not vanish at one fell swoop, but will slowly, just disappear. Like Willie Whitelaw said one time in a different context “there are more ways of killing a pig than by cutting its throat”.

It is ridiculous that we still have three secondary schools in the Controlled Sector scattered all over the town, one at one end of the town and one at the other, with Craigavon Senior High School the meat in the sandwich. The schools are all struggling to meet their budget demands, and the two senior schools, because of their size, the demands of the Entitlement Framework. In response, all we get from the grammar school lobby is a plea for more of the same. This is a bit like encouraging lemmings to continue running to their own destruction.

For years it has been a well kept secret that Craigavon Senior High School has been haemorrhaging money, and this in the present economic climate cannot continue. In addition the buildings at all the schools, are increasingly becoming antiquated and “third world”.

It is not rocket science to work out that if Craigavon Senior High School closes, that will be the end of the Dickson Plan. This is not scaremongering, people who have been critical of Mr Mehaffey should sit down and study carefully exactly what he said. He certainly was not swayed by his emotions. It was obvious that he had taken a lot of time and given a lot of thought to what he said.

If people are serious about preserving the Dickson Plan they are going to have to take the initiative and make real and substantive changes, not cosmetic changes, to adapt it to the twenty first century, and that will mean major changes to the estates aspect. There will have to be real and meaningful collaboration, and co-operation, between the two senior schools. The days when each school could stand alone and virtually ignore one another, to the detriment of the children, are gone. This could be a pivotal moment for our community, and it may never come again. Management skills alone won’t hack it, it requires vision and leadership. We need the same innovative and radical approach that produced the Dickson Plan, and tenacity and courage to see it through the same waves of doubt and opposition. People like to stick with what is familiar and safe, but sometimes, for their own good, they have to be shaken out of their comfort zone. This is not without risk, but it sometimes has to be judged against the greater risk of doing nothing.

All the schools in the Controlled Sector, and the community, will have to get their heads together and come up with a strategic plan that charts the way forward, and is in the interests of all our children. I did agree with one thing Mr O’Dowd said “the aim of education must be purely for the benefit of the pupil and not the school”.

Are we going to continue to resist change, and shoot ourselves in the foot, simply to spite those who may want change to conform to their political agenda? Should we not instead attempt to bend it to our agenda? This scenario reminds me of William Booth. When he was accused of bringing worldly music into the church he retorted “why should the devil have the best tunes?”