‘Time for change’ in education

A LURGAN headmaster has called for a change to the ‘status quo’ in controlled education in the area.

Lurgan Junior High School Principal Joseph Johnston said he was pleased the debate on the way ahead for post-primary controlled schools has gone “beyond the superficial”.

His comments follow last week’s report in the ‘MAIL’ in which Craigavon Senior High School Principal David Mehaffey described changes to the Dickson Plan as “inevitable and long overdue”.

Mr Johnston said: “Much of the recent comment has been little more than an appeal to emotion and prejudice and I am glad to see that Mr Mehaffey has now placed some of the real issues in the public domain.

“In particular I would draw the attention of your readers to his statement that a two year Key Stage 4 school cannot survive financially when faced with rapidly changing pupil numbers.

“Some people suggest that an upgrading of the Lurgan Campus of Craigavon Senior High School would fix the problem. Others have talked about bussing Craigavon Senior High School (Lurgan) pupils to Portadown.

“These suggestions show a failure to understand that the problem is related to the structure of the two tier system and the latter will further weaken Lurgan as a commercial centre.

“Community cohesion will also be adversely affected. What other town in Northern Ireland would countenance losing approximately two hundred fourth and fifth form pupils each year to a neighbouring town?”

Mr Johnston added: “The public needs to understand that the status quo cannot continue. The Department of Education has to save tens of millions of pounds over the next four years and frontline services will inevitably be affected.

“Within the four controlled junior high schools there are currently between four and five hundred empty spaces with serious implications for the cost of running those schools.

“In addition, the Dickson Plan controlled schools sector absorbs around £200,000 annually in Small School Support. Mr Mehaffey has already spelled out the financial difficulties that he faces in running his own school.”

Mr Johnston said many people have still not accepted that there is a real need for change. He added that politicians have failed pupils through their reluctance to engage in a debate about a future education provision which would meet the needs of all young people irrespective of their ability or aptitude.

He said: “We have surely reached a stage where the topic of debate needs to change.

“For too long the question that has been asked is, ‘How do we retain what we already have?’

“The answer is that we cannot. Lurgan has a relatively small number of controlled school pupils housed in three post primary schools. Budget constraints, however, mean that schools in general need to be bigger to enable them to deliver the Northern Ireland Curriculum economically.

“Add in the condition of some of the accommodation at Lurgan Junior High School and Lurgan College, the inadequate accommodation at Craigavon Senior High School and the previously mentioned financial difficulties and the need for change is both inevitable and urgent.

“The question we now need to be asking is, ‘What changes are we going to make that will meet the educational needs of all the young people of Lurgan?’”

Mr Johnston said he believed the time is right to make public the findings of an SELB Economic Appraisal on the future of post-primary controlled provision in Lurgan so that it can form a starting point for discussions on the way forward.

He commented: “The reality is that the current provision in Lurgan is not sustainable and the discussion must now turn to how that provision can be restructured so that the needs of all our children can be addressed.

“I have no doubt that a number of different options will be put forward for consideration. For them to be worthwhile, however, they have to show how all the pupils will be catered for in terms of our school’s estate, quality of provision, resourcing and curriculum offer.

“An option that identifies a way forward for some children without including proposals for the remainder is unacceptable and not something that I will be prepared to support.”