O’Dowd’s plan for non-selective grammar school is slammed

Trevor Robinson, headmaster of Lurgan College.
Trevor Robinson, headmaster of Lurgan College.

Grammar school supporters in Craigavon have hit out after the education minister unveiled the first ‘non-selective grammar school’ to be created in Northern Ireland from merging other schools.

Minister John O’Dowd has now approved proposals to merge St Michael’s Grammar, St Mary’s High and St Paul’s Junior High into one new school.

Last month grammar schools in Craigavon were given a reprieve from education board plans to turn them into what many parents felt were non-selective comprehensive schools.

The board plans were part of proposed reforms of the Dickson Plan, which sees children in Craigavon delay academic selection until age 14. In a board survey parents overwhelmingly voted to maintain the grammar school and Dickson Plan model.

But speaking on BBC Talkback yesterday, the minister said that the legal definition of a grammar school had nothing to do with academic selection but only related to a school’s ability to charge fees or its management style.

The announcement is “significant”, he said, because it marks the start of a new “voluntary grammar school” serving 1,700 pupils from the Catholic population in the Lurgan area which will draw its pupils from mixed ability children.

He brushed off observations that St Michael’s has been in formal intervention for over a year after inspections found it “mostly inadequate”.

This was because there are “not enough pupils” in the area, he suggested.

“Under the current Dickson Plan, pupils are divided up in the interests of institutions, not the children they are there to serve,” he added.

Simon Harper, headmaster of Portadown College, and Trevor Robinson, headmaster of Lurgan College, yesterday said they look forward to working with the new school in Lurgan.

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

Its success is evident in “universally positive inspection reports”, well above average exam results and “huge” community support, they said.

DUP education spokesman Mervyn Storey said that for many Catholic parents in Lurgan, choice has now been abolished.

The minister has “set aside a system which has enjoyed cross-community support for many years”, he said, for “an untried, untested arrangement – a non-selective voluntary grammar school on a split site”.

UUP education spokesman Danny Kinahan said his party wants to see “a single, shared education system” but complained that the minister’s Lurgan plan solidifies divisions by merging three Catholic schools “with little consideration for future opportunities for sharing across sectors”.

The UUP is not convinced large schools are the best way of achieving academic excellence, he added.