Board voted to ‘safeguard’ the Dickson Plan

Plunkett Campbell.
Plunkett Campbell.

Last Wednesday, the Southern Education and Library Board approved proposals aimed at securing the future of the much-cherished ‘Dickson Plan’ by ensuring the Craigavon two-tier system’s sustainability for the foreseeable future.

Board members endorsed the recommendation of the advisory sub-committee for controlled schools by backing Option A, which is also supported by five of the seven schools within the system.

A Development Proposal to give effect to the changes envisaged under Option A will be published in the autumn and, following a statutory period of public consultation, the final decision on whether to grant approval will rest with the Education Minister.

Contrary to some inaccurate claims, the Board wishes to reiterate that it unequivocally supports the retention of the Dickson Plan two-tier system of education within Craigavon’s Controlled Sector.

The SELB recognises not only the established strengths and successes of the system but the overwhelming support it enjoys within the local community and it is in this context that the board has considered specific proposals aimed at addressing unavoidable viability issues.

Retaining the simple status quo is not an option due to Craigavon Senior High’s projected financial deficit in excess of £1million, the fact that accommodation at the school’s Lurgan campus is not fit for purpose and the pressing need for rebuilds of both Portadown College and Lurgan College.

Consequently, when the Area Planning consultation process deriving from the Education Minister’s ‘Putting Pupils First’ initiative failed to produce consensus on the way forward, the SELB embarked upon further direct consultation with the two-tier system’s seven schools.

The options brought forward for discussion with the relevant schools have been in the context of preserving the two-tier system and consolidating its successes. The responses received have helped inform the board’s decision-making process.

After careful consideration and discussion with the schools involved, the board believes Option A is the only viable basis for securing the future of the strongly supported Dickson system by ensuring sustainability and attracting the many millions of capital funding needed.

It is significant that a majority of schools within the system, all of whom passionately believe in upholding Dickson, clearly share the board’s view that Option A is based upon Dickson’s core principles.

Those schools supportive of Option A are evidently satisfied that the proposals therein strongly reflect fundamental tenets of Dickson, notably automatic transfer from primary school with academic selection delayed until age 14.

The board believes that the implementation of Option A will protect the two-tier system while delivering the best educational outcomes for all the young people of the Craigavon area’s Controlled Sector through a linked network of viable schools.

Crucially, the adoption of Option A should remove any credible obstacles to the Department of Education releasing the many millions of capital funding previously approved for the overdue rebuilds of the existing grammar schools, Portadown College and Lurgan College.

Although the SELB has received numerous expressions of support for Option B, the board remains wholly unconvinced that this alternative is capable of attracting the very significant capital funding needed in order to progress it, in light of the clear concerns over its viability.

Supporters of Option B have failed to make a convincing case as to the viability of a new-build, single campus Craigavon Senior High School with an added sixth form given the strong academic and vocational post-16 provision which already exists locally in the grammar schools and Southern Regional College respectively.

It is evident that there are strongly-held, divergent views on the best way forward and these have been clearly expressed in recent times, but at least there is strong agreement that the two-tier system, based on fundamental Dickson Plan principles, should continue.

Countenancing change is never easy but those schools supportive of Option A have recognised that there is a serious sustainability issue within the system which cannot be ignored without jeopardising the future of the entire system.

They have had the pragmatic vision to support structural changes which can unlock long overdue capital funding for rebuilds while preserving the two-tier system and remaining true to the Dickson fundamentals.

I have no doubt that those who have contributed to the heated debate share the board’s objective of obtaining and delivering good educational outcomes for all young people in the Craigavon area.

Now we must channel that energy and conviction in moving forward with confidence and fresh purpose, united in our commitment to maintaining the robust breadth and quality of specialist educational experience available locally within the Controlled Sector.