David Mehaffey looks back on 41 years in education with great fondness and considers it privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute to the development of so many fine young people during that time.
His career has been spent entirely within the two-tier system and few people understand the Dickson Plan better than Mr Mehaffey.
Brought up in Portadown, he attended Killicomaine (then Intermediate) School in the late 1960s, just before Dickson was phased in. After four years at Stranmillis College studying for a Bachelor of Education degree, he returned to his old school in 1973 as a teacher of Geography and after a further four years, transferred to the new Technical College on the Lurgan Road in 1977.
In that environment, he spent time as a Geography teacher, worked with young people with special educational needs and spent a number of years working in the field of Training and Development where his role was to train the staff who would be delivering training programmes to young people. Finally, in 1995, he applied for and was appointed to, the position of Principal of Craigavon Senior High School (CSHS).
Mr Mehaffey accepts that the creation of the new school brought about a huge improvement in the educational provision for young people within the Dickson Plan. He is justifiably proud of the contribution that the school has made to the communities in Lurgan and Portadown and proud of the standard of care enjoyed by the pupils who attend the school.
However, he is disappointed at what he sees as the inequalities which still exist in relation to the education of those young people who do not attend grammar school. “It is my long-established view that an education system should value all children equally and I do not believe that the Dickson plan has ever fully managed to do that,” he insisted.
“I am not necessarily attacking the system in making that comment and I will be happy to support any system of education that meets that standard. However, I believe that some changes will be needed before all our young people can be said to have been treated equally.”
Mr Mehaffey adds there are problems of CSHS being on two sites, five miles apart – at Lurgan Road, Portadown and Kitchen Hill, Lurgan – “There are difficulties of managing the school in a budget when pupil numbers change regularly. In September, numbers will decrease from the current 665 to 608 with a budget reduction in March 2015 of approximately £250,000. That means a lack of continuity for pupils and constant changes to the staff of the school.”
He adds these are personal views which he not attempting to impose on others. He would leave the primary and junior high schools as the all-ability schools that they are today and create a single all-ability senior high school within which pupils would be banded according to their ability.
Mr Mehaffey adds that such a school would have approximately 1200 pupils; it would offer the full range of curriculum subjects; transfer from junior high school would be automatic and could begin earlier in the year; young people would have a wider choice of educational pathways; and the financial problems caused by fluctuating pupil numbers would be spread across the entire institution.
“While I have heard suggestions that Craigavon Senior High School could be made viable by turning it into a four-year school, I do not see that as a real possibility,” he added. “Nearly 50 per cent of the population already has access to A Level provision within the grammar schools, while we at CSHS are sitting beside the Southern Regional College which already has the resources and expertise to deliver vocational courses such as BTecs. Where would the students for a Craigavon Senior High School sixth form come from?
“Whatever the outcome, I am happy to leave the decisions to others and hand over the running of Craigavon Senior High School to my successor, Mrs Eileen Cousins. My wife Joan – a Special Needs Assistant at Richmount Primary School for the last 12 years – is also retiring, and we are looking forward to time together and the opportunity to enjoy a bit of travel.”
They have two grown up daughters, Emma and Jill.