A proposal to close the Lurgan campus of Craigavon Senior High and bus the town’s schoolchildren to Portadown met with strong and vocal opposition at a public meeting held on Monday night.
Approximately 400 people packed the assembly hall at Lurgan Junior High School as the Education Authority (EA) outlined its vision for the future of Craigavon Senior High.
The EA has launched an eight week consultation on closing the Lurgan campus of the school to consolidate on its Portadown campus - the only option on the consultation paper.
Pupils attend the school for two years - up to GSCE level - across campuses in Lurgan and Portadown. The Lurgan campus has long been regarded as wholly inadequate in terms of facilities.
Parents at Monday night’s meeting voiced their opposition to the plans amid calls for the children from the Lurgan campus to be accommodated at Lurgan Junior High School in an 11-16 school - retaining academic selection at age 14 for pupils to move on to Lurgan College.
Parents were warned ‘not to be bamboozled by figures’ after EA officials outlined the case for their proposals and their reasons for rejecting other alternatives.
Indeed there were weary laughs of derision as EA official Michael McConkey outlined the advantages or the Portadown solution and the Lurgan option - with a much shorter list for the Lurgan case. One parent pointed out many of the points made in favour of Portadown could - and should - be included in the case for Lurgan.
A former governor at Craigavon Senior High and also a governor at the junior High, Mr Tom McKay, questioned a £1.2 million deficit that officials said the senior high was running at.
Stressing he was speaking in a personal capacity he asked what proportion of that deficit was due to pupil fluctuations in a two year school, pointing out: “Some will be due to running a split site school, but not all.”
He went on to say: “Running a two year school was always going to be a risky business.”
He pointed to the effect fluctuating pupil numbers could have as they could lose 60 pupils in a year which could have a significant impact on the school budget.
He added: “You talk about moving pupils to Portadown but its still going to be a two year school, it is always going to be subject to times of stress.”
One key point of the discussions with regard to the ‘Lurgan solution’ was the EA’s insistence on protecting the Dickson Plan - which sees academic selection delayed to age 14 in this area.
The EA pointed to a statement made by DUP Education Minister Peter Weir on June 6, 2016 in defence of the Dickson Plan.
He said at that time: “I want to assure people locally that I will be offering support and assurance for the continuation of the Dickson Plan system, and will be ushering in a period of educational stability on the issue. This is something that works, and so I will ensure that the Dickson Plan is not removed either directly or undermined through stealth, and that any threat is now lifted.”
Mr McKay: “We are paving over the cracks and stripping Lurgan of all these young people and all to satisfy the statement of a minister.
“To say creating an 11-16 school in Lurgan could be perceived as weakening the Dickson Plan - that is very suspect. I support the Dickson Plan in as far as the Dickson Plan is selection at 14. This is not a detraction from the Dickson Plan.”
It was a point which struck a definite chord with those at the meeting who applauded his remarks.
He added the Dickson Plan did need to be changed with the colleges in Lurgan and Portadown taking more than the average number of pupils while the senior high school pupils were the “most vulnerable in society.”
He commended the work done by the teachers at the senior high: “If it wasn’t for their hard work it would have failed long ago.”
Another parent pointed to Peter Weir’s remarks and said: “Do not hold us to ransom for a man who was in a government that doesn’t exist anymore.”
A number of speakers articulated the Lurgan solution while other expressed their practical concerns over bussing children to Portadown - especially from outlying villages.
One pointed out: “A review is being carried out which could see bus passes taken away so it could cost you £300 a year to get a child to a school you did not choose.”
The EA officials stated the consultation was the start of the process rather than the end but a decision would be based on educational considerations rather than weight of numbers.