O’Dowd sets a deadline for resolution

John O'Dowd MLA. INLM4710-629con
John O'Dowd MLA. INLM4710-629con

Education Minister John O’Dowd has given the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) until September 2015 to resolve what he sees as the shortcomings of the Dickson Plan for Education.

In a no-punches-pulled letter to the board, he claims that “a cohort of children (in the Craigavon area) are being denied the high quality education which it is your statutory duty to provide. I cannot, and will not, stand by and let this continue”.

He goes on, “You (the board) clearly articulated at a recent meeting the SELB’s concern that the Dickson Plan is not working for all of the children in the area. You stated you have clear, educational evidence that there are significant disparities in education provision and outcomes.

“By your own admission, the SELB has known this for a number of years, so why do you plan to spend a further year or more research and consultation?”

The Minister’s outburst comes after the board wrote to him in April setting out what they saw as the problems in the Craigavon Borough Council area – that “overall performance in the Craigavon district is the lowest of the six district council areas that comprise the SELB”.

The letter adds, “Performance varies across Craigavon, with that in Brownlow Integrated College very disappointing and that in the Catholic maintained sector below average.”

It goes on to say that Portadown and Lurgan Colleges are performing in line with the four-year Northern Ireland average at both GCSE and A-Levels, but that Craigavon Senior High School is performing below the GCSE average.

The board admits that a group of young people are not being served well by the Dickson Plan, “the reasons for which are not apparent”. There have, the board states, been only two detailed academic studies of the plan since it was introduced almost 50 years ago, the last one being in 1998 - “Board officers will now re-engage with school leaders, boards of governors, local politicians and community leaders around the performance of the controlled sector in Craigavon”.

But Mr O’Dowd finds more detailed research by the board unacceptable, and challenges them to come up with the answers for the start of the 2015 school year. He was furious when his controversial ‘Option A’ to revolutionise Dickson was rejected by the board in February.

This proposed a two-tier school on the site of Portadown College, one a grammar school type and the other with a more technical-vocation ethos, both designed to accommodate the 14-plus age groups coming from the juniors highs.

But it met with vociferous opposition with a massive 80 per cent-plus vote against it in the public consultation and the board removed it from the table. Afterwards, Mr O’Dowd insisted that the status quo was not an option, with students in Craigavon Senior High – both in the Portadown and Lurgan campuses - especially losing out.

The board’s response was to announce a further consultation, with an independent education assessor entering the equation. But Mr O’Dowd insists that an open timescale is not acceptable, and while he agrees that work is needed on the structural aspect of things, he has set a deadline of September 2015 for the changes to be implemented.

“I want to see dates included in your action plan as well as formal updates on progress,” he ends his letter.