Defending Dickson plan

LOCAL unionist politicians have rushed to the defence of the Dickson Plan following calls for the system to be scrapped.

Local MLAs Stephen Moutray and Jo-Anne Dobson have both hit out at comments by John O’Dowd in last week’s ‘MAIL’.

Mr Moutray has issued a ‘hands off the Dickson Plan’ call: “Having read with concern the comments over the past number of weeks, I believe now is the time for political leadership on this very important issue. People within the Craigavon area are rightly alarmed at the thought of losing the Dickson plan for education which has served this community well for over 40 years and is the envy of many educational institutions throughout Northern Ireland.

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“As a former pupil of the Dickson plan I have always championed its benefits and the high level of educational success it produces. Therefore I want to see it retained and built upon as opposed to destroying a hugely successful educational system. I am also pleased that my party colleagues are also in support of the system.

“Unfortunately there has been an ideological crusade against the Dickson plan by both the current and previous Education Ministers. However, it remains a matter of law that as a result of what the DUP negotiated at St Andrews that no Minister has the power to collapse or destroy our local system that serves Craigavon well.

“The Dickson Plan has proved to be very popular with both parents and students. There is no educational or organisational reason why it should not continue to be in operation regardless of whatever arrangements are made for post primary transfer across the rest of Northern Ireland. Dickson is unique to this area and has worked for over 40 years. It has excelled with regard to academic achievements with student grades higher than that of the Northern Ireland average.”

He added: “The DUP has supported the right of schools, who wish to continue to use academic assessment when it comes to post primary transfer something which is now enshrined in legislation. Even the previous Education Minister, Caitriona Ruane was forced to concede this to me at the Assembly in an answer to a written question were she admitted that there was: ‘no regulations permitting or prohibiting academic admissions criteria or prescribing the way such criteria should be used or what assessment mechanisms should support them’.

“This leaves schools operating the Dickson Plan free to retain the current system in its entirety.

“Minister O’Dowd has no legislative power to prevent any school in any sector continuing to utilise academic transfer criteria. That is why I was sorry that some local principals allowed themselves to be placed in a position where they promoted his ideologically driven campaign.”

Mr Moutray said: “The biggest threat to the Dickson Plan is if local people desert it. The Minister has no power to scrap it. Parents have it in their power to ensure that educationalists are prevented from causing it to wither on the vine. What I want to see for Craigavon is Dickson retained and the state of the Senior High School (Lurgan Campus) estate dealt with immediately.

“It is unacceptable for the children attending the Senior High School to make do with lesser facilities. Therefore I believe people should channel their efforts into lobbying to that end as opposed to the demise of the Dickson plan. Academic achievements of our Lurgan schools have been tremendous for many years and therefore my position is clear - retain academic selection at 14 and hands off the Dickson Plan.”

UUP MLA Mrs Dobson said of Mr O’Dowd’s comments: “Whilst I am naturally disappointed with his views, I am not surprised as it has been known for some time that Sinn Fein are committed to the systematic dismantling of all that is good about our education systems.

“For over forty years the Dickson plan has served the people of Craigavon well and proven to be a highly successful educational system, balancing as it does those pupils with academic ability and those with technical ability. Far from calling for an end to the Dickson plan, as he did in last week’s article, the minister should be looking at aspects of the plan as a post-primary model to roll out across Northern Ireland.

“We must ensure that local solutions, such as the Dickson Plan, are both supported and protected from those who would gladly see their demise. When the Education Minister says that there must be choice, he must realise that a ‘My Way or No Way’ approach is not the best way to determine the education of our young children.

Responding to a specific comment made by the minister in the article when he said: “It’s better to allow change to evolve rather than force it.” Mrs Dobson said: “This runs totally contrary to a threatening letter which his Department recently sent out calling for an end to the Dickson plan and academic selection within the local area.

“A blinkered and dogmatic approach from the Department of Education on this issue is simply not good enough so we must ensure that they get the message loud and clear – The Dickson Plan is good for Craigavon, and as a community system receives widespread support and must remain in place.

“The minister must listen to the views of local people on this issue and I therefore urge parents and staff to make their views known to the minister and to get behind efforts to support the future of this valuable and successful education system.

“If one positive aspect can come out of the minister’s intervention on this issue let it be that it reopens the debate on how successful the Dickson plan has been for Craigavon and highlights the long-running failures of Sinn Fein, as holders of the Department Education for the past thirteen years, to implement a viable alternative to the eleven plus system in other areas of Northern Ireland.

“I am pleased that both the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Education Committee have, as recently as last month, shown their support for the retention of local solutions such as the Dickson Plan and as a member of the Education Committee I will continue to stand up for the system at every turn.

“I therefore call upon the Minister to put the interests of our pupils ahead of the interests of his own political party.”