‘You’ve picked a fight with the wrong head’

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Lurgan College Principal Trevor Robinson has told those intent on dismantling the Dickson Plan that they have “picked a fight with the wrong headmaster”.

Mr Robinson made the comments during his speech day address on Friday. He was backed by board of governors chair Stanley Abraham who told those gathered the removal of the Dickson Plan was a removal of their culture.

During his speech Mr Robinson said: “The threat to our system is real and must be acknowledged if we are to ensure that future generations of young people from this area are able to avail of such high quality provision in the coming years.

“In my speech day address last year I asked for openness, transparency, integrity and respect from all quarters in relation to the ongoing debate. I have to report my disappointment today with the actions of some who really should know better and who have plotted in the shadows to bring about the destruction of this school, in particular, and the Dickson Plan, in general. I should add that they have picked a fight with the wrong headmaster, the wrong governors, the wrong staff, the wrong parents, the wrong pupils and the wrong community.

“Secret meetings and connivance in pre-determined processes do little to inspire professional confidence and fail to reflect the aforementioned integrity and respect required to move the process forward. The willingness of the Department of Education, through a ‘Freedom of Information’ Request, to share the details of such low standards of professional conduct stands in marked contrast to the SELB who felt that such information was far too sensitive and should continue to be withheld from you, the community who, I feel, has the absolute right to know what has been going on. The over-use of the secretive ‘in committee’ facility employed by the SELB confirms our suspicion that they wish to keep the community in the dark regarding their decision-making process.

“Something which I have found particularly galling is the SELB’s vindictive refusal to carry out any minor capital improvements to Lurgan College until the Area Plan is agreed – it beggars belief that this includes our simple health and safety request for the provision of a safe walkway for children to proceed to the assembly point during emergency evacuations, even though the Board had been made aware of pupils falling and injuring themselves during an emergency evacuation earlier in the year. The governors still await a response to their letter of concern sent to the board on June 19. Equally reprehensible is the board’s decision not to proceed with a previously agreed commitment to provide refurbished changing accommodation beside our new hockey pitch, the location of which does not impinge in any shape or form on area based planning. Most disappointing indeed.

“The SELB during the last year has conducted two consultations during which it set out proposals for the Dickson Plan. I am greatly disturbed by the Minister for Education’s direct involvement in this process and in the stated agreement between DE and the SELB regarding amalgamations in Lurgan before the most recent consultation in March was even launched. This consultation deliberately ignored parents, pupils and all our local primary schools. Nevertheless our community was not to be silenced and some 3,790 written objections to the SELB’s proposals compared favourably with a paltry four in favour. Yes, 0.1% of the written submissions supported the SELB’s position and 99.9% rejected it. As you all know, the SELB decided, however, to ride roughshod over the wishes of the community, although recent communication from the board would appear to suggest that there is now some confusion within the SELB as to whether or not they actually made a decision on June 26.

“A recent meeting with the new Interim Chief Executive, Mr Gavin Boyd, shed some clarity on the process – the board’s latest decision is that they have not yet made a decision and they are now actively seeking your ideas on how to get us all out of this debacle and how to solve the inexcusable bricks and mortar issue which exists at the Lurgan Campus of Craigavon Senior High. Option A is, however, still on the table. Why? Because the board mistakenly believes that no decision made by the board can be revisited within six months of that decision being taken. This is a ludicrous notion given that within all public bodies a facility exists to rescind bad decisions and believe me, adopting Option A, is a bad decision.

“Bad for every single person living in this area. Bad for the pupils of Lurgan Junior High School. Bad for the pupils of Craigavon Senior High School. Bad for the pupils of Lurgan College. Bad for our primary schools. Bad for parents. Bad for business. Bad for this community. It is unsafe educationally, legally, politically and socially.

“Option A, in a nutshell, will destroy the Dickson Plan and will, if implemented, result in the closure of Lurgan College and all the successes which we have celebrated today will, make no mistake, be relegated to a by-gone era.”

Towards the end of his speech he added: “I stand back and admire the courage and the tenacity of our concerned parents groups who, like all of us, demand answers from the SELB and from schools whose publicly stated position is to close Lurgan College and deny all the young people of Lurgan true educational choice. Parents must never under-estimate their power and their influence; their role is pivotal here. This is not a ‘done deal’. I also acknowledge the sterling work of our active concerned pupil groups as they continue to fight for the rights of future generations to have access to the high quality system which they currently enjoy.

“I also acknowledge the outstanding and responsible political leadership offered by the unionist parties and thank them for their vociferous and passionate commitment to the preservation of the Dickson Plan. I would ask Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson MLA and Alderman Stephen Moutray MLA to convey to their parties our deepest appreciation for their support at this time. I must also add that the First Minister’s promise to block this controversial decision at Executive level, should it ever make it that far, has provided great solace and comfort to a community which, for too long, has felt under attack by those who have ideological rather than educational interests at heart.

He concluded: “Lurgan College will continue to lead while others mislead; this school has shone as a symbol of hope in Lurgan through the town’s darkest days; this grammar school ‘baby’ is far too precious to throw out with the SELB/DE-muddied bath water.”

Stanley Abraham, speaking on behalf of the schools’ board of governors, addressed the speech day audience by saying: “There is wide spread rejection of Option A from educationalists, from commerce and from industry and from our elected politicians but most especially from you, the parents of the children in the Dickson Plan.

“The Dickson Plan is a system that offers the young people of Lurgan, Portadown, Craigavon and surrounding areas the opportunity to pursue their educational needs regardless of social status. We have an education provision that is second to none. Children at the tender age of 11 and often only 10, are not required to sit a selection test to determine where they will spend the next five or seven years of their young lives.

“They receive at LJHS an excellent education that allows them in Year 10, at age 14, to elect or select at a more mature age the best pathway suited to their individual needs and abilities. Some choose to come here, others choose CSHS. Either way they have, and you the parents have available an entrance to two excellent schools depending upon what is best suited to each child’s needs. The recent Inspectorate Reports and indeed the examination results of both schools confirm this.

“Why then does John O’Dowd, the Minister for Education seem so determined to destroy and dismantle such an excellent system with his ideological vision for all-abilities, comprehensive, one-size-fits-all schools for Northern Ireland?

“Make no mistake about it, this is clearly Craigavon first, the rest of Northern Ireland next.

“It is the removal of our culture. It is the removal of parental choice. It is the removal of the opportunity for every young person to reach their full potential.

“And just in case you think that I have become biased or protectionist towards Lurgan College to the disregard of all young people in the controlled sector in our community let me read to you an extract from my speech at this same event six years ago in 2007.

“I said then, ‘I believe that all children should have the very best opportunities in life through an education system that is tailored to suit their needs, develops their full potential via fit for purpose premises, state of the art levels of equipment and 21st century technology and a system which offers educational excellence in both academic and vocational pathways’.”

“My opinion has not changed since then, nor has the opinions of the board of governors of this school and indeed we have continually stated this view. A view that is shared by the overwhelming members of this community.

“The accommodation issues surrounding the Lurgan campus of CSHS demand, and should have, immediate action. All agree that the physical resources at Kitchen Hill are completely unacceptable. But let the part that is broken be fixed and for the sake of our children, grandchildren and future generations do not throw the baby out with the bath water.”