Head backs audit’s findings

David Mehaffeyn SRC chairman, and two of his former school principals Mr David Gillespie, Tandragee junior High School, and Mr David Mehaffey, Craigavon Senior High School.INLM1212-151con
David Mehaffeyn SRC chairman, and two of his former school principals Mr David Gillespie, Tandragee junior High School, and Mr David Mehaffey, Craigavon Senior High School.INLM1212-151con

THE recently published Viability Audits into schools in Northern Ireland have raised a number of issues.

Last week, the ‘MAIL’ heard from Lurgan College principal Trevor Robinson, who claimed Education Minister John O’Dowd was using the audit to dismantle the Craigavon Two Tier System.

This week, the principal of one of the schools, which was flagged as being financially unsustainable, told the ‘MAIL’ he welcomes the fact the audit has brought the problems of the Two Tier System into the spotlight again.

Craigavon Senior High received a Level 2 rating in terms of financial stress which equates to a financial deficit between 25% and 50%. Level 1 is the worst rating a school can get while Level 4 is given to a school within LMS limits.

The audit stated that, in trying to address Craigavon Senior High School’s unviability, proposals to modernise the Craigavon Two Tier System would be considered as part of the Area Planning process.

Principal David Mehaffey said: “That Craigavon Senior High School has serious financial problems is now a matter of public record. There are a number of reasons for this, none of which have anything to do with the quality of the school’s teaching, which was commended in a recent inspection report, or its ability to attract pupils – the school is full. The reasons are complex, but I will do my best to explain.

“The problems stem from the fact that Craigavon Senior High School is a two year non-selective school operating in a selective system. Within that system the grammar schools in Lurgan and Portadown enrol their full admissions quotas each year as they are required to do and so enjoy stable pupil numbers. Year groups vary in size from year to year, however, so the fluctuations are felt almost entirely by Craigavon Senior High School.

“Two factors magnify the impact of these fluctuating pupil numbers. Unlike more traditional five or seven year schools our school has a turnover of fifty percent of its pupils each year. This means that changes to our overall pupil numbers happen very rapidly and their effects cannot be phased in over time.

“The problem is further exaggerated by the fact that in some years our admission number of three hundred and ten is not sufficient to accommodate the number of pupils leaving the junior high schools. When that happens the size of our intake is swollen by extra pupils enrolled with the approval of the Department of Education.

“A situation can then arise where a very large group of Year 12 leavers containing up to thirty or forty extra pupils is replaced by a small Year 11. This happened most recently in 2010, resulting in an overnight reduction of nearly eleven percent of the school population and a corresponding reduction in income the following year of three hundred thousand pounds.

“In addition, we also have to meet the costs of managing the school on two sites that are five miles apart. These include the duplication of staff and resources and, in a Key Stage 4 GCSE based school, a higher than normal number of unviably small classes. These costs are not adequately met by the Department of Education’s Common Funding Formula with the result that, even without fluctuating numbers, the school has difficulty remaining within budget.

“I am very proud of what we do for our pupils on a day to day basis. That is not the issue. The difficulties stem from the original decision to create Craigavon Senior High School as a two year school on two sites with the Lurgan Campus located in inadequate accommodation. The time has come when the model is no longer sustainable and the impact of change will be felt throughout the system.

“However, to attribute the problems facing the two tier system in Lurgan solely to Craigavon Senior High School’s finances and accommodation would be unfair. There is a further challenge that the planning authorities need to address, namely the relatively small number of controlled school pupils in Lurgan.

“Since the start of the millennium the average of all the post primary year groups in the controlled sector has been two hundred and eighteen pupils, a number that presents problems for both the selective and non-selective schools in the town. In the current financial climate and with the need to meet the curriculum demands of the Entitlement Framework it appears to me that the health and sustainability of one can only be secured at the cost of damage to the other.

“When I reflect on this issue, and it is never far from my mind, I invariably conclude that the system has to change. And when I attempt to plan a way forward I find myself challenging some commonly held assumptions.

“Why must we always see change as a threat rather than an opportunity to create something better for our children? Is a system that served some people well in the past the best way to prepare all our young people for a very different future?

“Why is it so important that we separate those young people into different schools to enable them to complete their education? Why are we prepared to deny to some of our children the right to feel equally valued by the community in which they live?

“Why is the word ‘comprehensive’ used so disparagingly by some people when they are simply describing a school for everyone within which children will be taught in groups of similar ability – rather like the junior high school in fact? And why is the prospect of change such a threat to the quality of our children’s education when they would continue to be taught by the same teachers that are teaching them at present?

“We may not have wanted our current state of affairs but I believe that it provides us with a once in a generation opportunity to address some of the problems of the current system in Lurgan.

“The Viability Audit talks of modernising the Two-Tier System. Let us have the vision to create a more inclusive educational system that values all of its children equally, prepares them for the challenges of the future and equips them to undertake roles in a rapidly changing world that have not yet been invented.”