Principals happy Dickson Plan has suvived Ruane's reforms

SCHOOLS in Portadown - under the Dickson Plan for Education - have broadly welcomed the reforms announced by Minister Caitriona Ruane at Stormont on Tuesday.

Principals in the three strands of education - primary, junior high and senior - say that it holds no fears, and that the Dickson Plan will continue to operate virtually undisturbed.

Mrs Ruane abolished the 11-plus - which has been absent from the Dickson schools for 35 years - in favour of choice at 14, although there is still selection at 14 within the Dickson Plan, which extends to Tandragee and Lurgan.

Over the years, the higher academic achievers in the junior highs have gone to Portadown College - around 45 per cent - with the remainder attending Craigavon Senior High.

But Portadown College Head Teacher Mrs Deborah O'Hare said that the two schools were evolving to become more equal partners, and that selection would be up to students and their parents by the time the Ruane principles were completed by 2011.

"Portadown College will continue to offer academic courses, with the senior high concentrating on vocational courses," she said. "At present many choose the senior high over Portadown College, with improved careers advice, and this trend will continue to the extent that both will be totally equal partners.

"It is already happening, not only at the point of entry, but with students transferring between the two schools. The Dickson Plan has shown that 11 is much too young, and it also has to be said that results here are seven per cent above the Ulster average.

"The Ruane proposals are not far removed from the Dickson Plan which will adapt without much pain to embrace the new reforms. It's good to see the Dickson Plan has at last been recognised. I was on Radio Foyle on Tuesday morning explaining the system, and they had never heard of it in the North West."

Killicomaine Junior High School principal Hugh McCarthy said that he, too, was a firm supporter of the Dickson Plan, and - in the case of the junior highs, "there will be little or no change".

"The 11-plus has, of course, been absent from our schools and we do not select in any shape or form," said Mr McCarthy. "We accept all the pupils from our feeder schools like Bocombra, Edenderry and Seagoe.

"They are banded by us into the various streams, and I can see that continuing after the Ruane announcement. The Minister is putting a stop to selection, but I cannot see her plan being so inflexible that banding should stop.

"Mixed ability classes benefit none of the pupils, and they should be taught consummate to ability."

Stephen Blevins, principal of nearby Bocombra is a product of the Dickson Plan, having attended the Hart Memorial Primary School, Clounagh JHS and Portadown College.

"The proof of its success is the quality of results," said Mr Blevins. "With the 11-plus out of the way, teaching at P7 level has been broader than the narrow teaching to get children through the 11-plus.

"There is no selection as such. Different primary schools have different levels of attainment and this is reflected by the banding system within the junior highs. I believe in the Dickson Plan at all levels, and it's good to see its advantages at last recognised by a parallel plan from the Minister. I believe it will prosper and adapt to the new reforms."

On the political front, MLA Stephen Moutray said he was gratified that the Ruane plan "isn't a million miles from Dickson".

He added, "However, on the broader front, the Minister is causing mayhem throughout the grammar sector, and to try and introduce the same all-embracing system for every area of the province is madness.

"For example, Kilkeel has an all-through comprehensive system which suits the area and it, too, would be swept away.

"But I doubt if she can do it. These things have to be done with cross-community Assembly support and that won't happen."