It’s better to jaw-jaw than war-war, that old war horse Winston Churchill once famously said.
It’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to have percolated the schools principals and board chairs involved in the upper echelons of the Dickson Plan for Education - the junior highs and Portadown College.
The controversy over the transfer examination dates may not have reached warlike proportions, but both sides seem to have dug in their heels. Portadown College wants the exams in April, so it can carefully assess where to place the 14-plus students – Portadown College or Craigavon Senior High.
But the junior highs believe that May is the better month, the reasoning being that the students will have more time to prepare for the important tests. And there is also the argument that, once the exams are finished, it will be difficult to motivate staff and pupils until the end of June and the final countdown in the junior highs. Both sections believe that their arguments are persuasive. Emotions seem to be running high, although one wonders how they managed in the past without all this friction.
Over the past few years, successive education ministers, especially the present incumbent John O’Dowd (Upper Bann MLA), have done their utmost to change the Dickson Plan. There were proposals to provide a bilateral school on the site of Portadown College, one with a grammar-type ethos and the other with technical subjects. It was a large shift towards the comprehensive education ethos which successive Sinn Fein ministers have espoused. They are opposed to any sort of selection.
They have their supporters, especially from the Craigavon Senior High School (CSHS) lobby, who still believe their students are being short changed by Dickson. Their reservations are not without substance. But Dickson, by and large, has served the area well, although there must be changes to bring CSHS more into the loop.
At the height of the protests, educationalists and politicians waged a strong campaign, and the Southern Education and Library Board – which had the final decision – succumbed. The Dickson Plan was saved.
It still has its detractors, and it is thought there are those within the JHS sector who are not 100 per cent behind it. But notwithstanding that, the principals involved must work with what they have, think first and foremost of the pupils and get on with making it work.
The timing of the entrance exams is not the be-all and end-all of the Dickson Plan and one wonders if either side is simply being obstructive. The only way forward is for the various principals and their board chairs to meet together and work out a compromise. They should strive to meet one another halfway and ease the passage from junior high to senior high for students, parents and staff.
When the education board finally buckled in the face of the campaign, which climaxed in Armagh, it was obvious that the various principles and chairs were not totally united. But they will have to come up with a feasible compromise – starting by getting around the table. They can work it out…