Halt plans to ‘scrap grammar schools’

Portadown College

Portadown College

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Four grammar schools last night called on the education minister to halt a process which they believe will transform them into comprehensives – and pressed for “real” consultation on the matter.

Principals from Portadown College, Lurgan College, Coleraine High School and the Collegiate Grammar School in Enniskillen all met in Portadown College last night to discuss their “lack of confidence” in Education Minister John O’Dowd’s area based plans, a consultation process intended to offer the public and stakeholders a say in reshaping schools in their areas.

Lurgan College principal Trevor Robinson said schools are being “ridden roughshod” over by the process and that education boards are “running shy from real engagement”. He added: “The whole process is being set by the minister and driven by the education boards. We believe the minister is planning to introduce comprehensivisation right across the Province.”

Portadown College principal Simon Harper said: “Community voices are being ignored during consultation – but that voice must be heard and respected.”

He said a fifth grammar school sent apologies last night and that the meeting could be the start of a wider process.

Elizabeth Armstrong, principal of the Collegiate Grammar School, said the Western Board is proposing to merge her school, which she said was the most oversubscribed in Co Fermanagh.

“We see the threat coming from plans to reduce the overall number of grammar schools in Northern Ireland,” she said.

Anne Bell, principal of Coleraine High School, said reforms are still being finalised in her area. “But we still wish to support and endorse the concerns of the other schools,” she said.

Last week DUP leader Peter Robinson defended the Dickson Plan in Craigavon, where Lurgan and Portadown colleges believe that they are to be merged with non-selective schools.

Mr Robinson said: “Any decision to go against the community wishes would clearly be controversial and therefore would be open to challenge at the Executive.”

Last night UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan called on the First Minister to extend his protection to all schools. “If he is willing to do it for the Dickson Plan, he should be willing to do it for every area,” Mr Kinahan said.

In response, DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said that the logical conclusion of his party leader’s promise was that it would indeed apply to schools in all areas.

“If there are schools under threat where there is not local agreement then we will take whatever steps are necessary to defend those schools, right across Northern Ireland,” he said.

The reason the replacement for the education boards – the Education and Skills Authority – has not come into force is because “it threatens grammar schools”, he added.

Minister O’Dowd was unavailable for comment last night.