Green light given to school amalgamation

St Michael's GS.
St Michael's GS.

The Education Minister has given the green light for the amalgamation of St Michael’s, St Mary’s and St Paul’s to form a new non-selective post-primary voluntary grammar school.

The new maintained school will cater for 1,750 pupils and operate initially on a split site.

The Education Minister John O’Dowd described the establishment of an all-abilities 11-18 school as ‘hugely significant’. During his announcement, comments made about the Dickson Plan angered two principals in the controlled sector.

Approving the merger, Mr O’Dowd, said: “The evidence, both local and international, is clear, mixed ability schooling can deliver better outcomes for everyone. The time has come to take decisive action to end the outdated practice of selecting on the basis of ability. I commend the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools for putting forward this progressive proposal.

“Under the current Dickson Plan, pupils are divided up in the interests of institutions, not the children they are there to serve. Established friendships are split up and young people have their confidence crushed for no reason other than an arbitrary decision made on their future path. I cannot allow this to continue.”

Mr O’Dowd’s comments on the Dickson Plan prompted a statement from Lurgan and Portadown College heads Trevor Robinson and Simon Harper. They said: “We look forward to working with the new institution as part of the Craigavon Area Learning Community in the future.

“We find it most unfortunate, however, that the Minister for Education should feel the need to make unsubstantiated criticisms of a hitherto very successful system of education, namely the Dickson Plan.

“In the controlled sector, the success of the Dickson Plan can be found in the universally positive inspection reports, outcomes in public examinations which, as a system, consistently outperform the rest of Northern Ireland and the huge community support enjoyed by the schools. In fact, the recent consultation exercise, conducted by the SELB for the controlled sector in the area, which proposed a move away from the Dickson Plan, was overwhelmingly rejected by the community. The SELB has since withdrawn this proposal.

“We refute the Minister’s mistaken belief that, under the current Dickson Plan, pupils are divided up in the interests of institutions but rather we wish to point out that the popular Dickson Plan in the controlled sector, with its system of delayed selection at age 14, places the child very much at the heart of its provision and affords appropriate, relevant and challenging pathways which meet the needs, aspirations and abilities of all young people.”

St Michael’s Grammar School has been in formal intervention for over a year after inspections found it “mostly inadequate”.

During an interview on BBC Talkback the Education Minister said the situation at St Michael’s had come about because of low pupil numbers. He was confident the school merger would remedy this.

When questioned about the new school’s grammar status he said the legal definition of a grammar school had nothing to do with academic selection. Instead it related to a school’s ability to charge fees or its management style.