Education in Craigavon

Vol. 9 No. 1 - 2007

Education in Craigavon


by Ian Wilson

Forty years ago this year the Craigavon Historical Society came into existence, at almost exactly the same time as its eponymous city. It has been suggested to me that a review of the aspect of the development of the area with which I am most familiar – education – covering that 40 year span might be an appropriate project, and that is what I intend to do in this article. My familiarity, for those who do not know, arises from the fact that I arrived in the area, as a newly qualified teacher in September 1966, and retired from the same school in August 2003, having spent my entire career there. So, at least some of what I have to say is based on first hand experience of education in Craigavon over the years.

The unique system of education that exists in the Craigavon area has its origins in one of the last major decisions taken by the old Stormont parliament. In the aftermath of the Matthew Report it was decided that a “new city” would be established, with the intention of counteracting the (then) burgeoning population of Greater Belfast. While this intention was, without doubt, a laudable one, its implementation was a matter of bitter recrimination.

Why here?

The decision to site the New City within 25 miles of Belfast seemed, to many, to fly in the face of logic, particularly since there were several existing centres of population west of the Bann that could easily have been developed. However, the government, in its wisdom, decided to develop the area of North Armagh between Lurgan and Portadown as the City of Craigavon (named after the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland).

Looking today at the car parks at Portadown and Lurgan stations, not to mention the Park and Ride sites adjacent to the M1, and indeed the traffic on that road in the morning, it is clear that the Craigavon area has become a dormitory for Belfast, something that its supporters in the 1960s do not appear to have foreseen. However, back in the 1960s, amongst the plethora of plans that had to be drawn up, a plan for education ranked high on the list. The responsible authority at the time was the Armagh County Education Committee, and the County’s Director of Education Mr Jack Dickson (who was, of course, an active supporter of the Craigavon Historical Society until his death), was instructed to draw up a plan for education in Craigavon.

The Dickson Plan

This blueprint was known (logically enough) as the Dickson Plan, a title still used today to describe the Craigavon system. W J Dickson was a local man. A pupil at Lurgan College in the 1930s (and editor of the first ever edition of the school magazine, Ulula) he went on to train as a teacher and to teach at Lurgan Model School, before entering administration with the County Education Committee.

Lurgan Model School
Early photograph of Lurgan Model School

In developing a plan for education in the New City, it must be recognised that Mr Dickson was not starting with a blank page. In the area there already were existing schools, at all levels of provision. Any interference with those schools was likely to lead to a backlash locally; therefore it would be necessary to tread cautiously in terms of educational innovation. On the other hand, the plan was expected to reflect what was then current educational thinking. In the rest of the UK in the mid 1960s perceived educational wisdom was that comprehensivisation, in one form or another, was the panacea for all educational ills. Such a suggestion for the Craigavon area was not going to be popular with the vocal Northern Ireland Grammar Schools lobby. Finally, of course, the essential duality of the Northern Ireland education system had to be maintained. The two sectors – Maintained and Controlled – had to be prepared to accept any educational innovation proposed. Faced with the complexities of the situation, it is probably fair to say that Mr Dickson produced the best solution in the circumstances.

It is usual to describe the Dickson Plan as a “modified Leicestershire Plan”. However, although the fundamental structures may have been similar, the Craigavon system was sufficiently different to justify its own unique status. It was based on a three-stage structure covering the years of compulsory education. The Leicester Plan had been based on Junior Schools (for ages 4+ to 10), Middle Schools (for ages 10+ to 13) and Upper Schools (for ages 13+).

Junior and senior high schools

The Craigavon system, while adopting the three-stage approach, retained the existing Primary Schools unchanged, providing their 7 year curriculum from 4+ to 11. The existing Intermediate Schools became Junior High Schools, providing a three year curriculum for ages 11+ to 14. Finally, the existing Grammar Schools became Senior High (Grammar) Schools recruiting pupils at age 14+ and providing a 4 year curriculum to age 18.

In practice this meant that the first major difference between the Dickson Plan and the system used elsewhere in Northern Ireland occurred at age 11, where pupils in Primary Schools would no longer have to sit the 11+ Transfer Tests, but would transfer automatically to the Junior High Schools. It was not until age 14 that the issue of selection appeared. At that stage internal procedures within the Junior High Schools provided for the transfer of pupils at age 14+ to either the Senior High (Grammar) or the Senior High (Technical) schools.

The Grammar schools would, as the name suggests, provide a largely academic curriculum up to A Level, while the Technical Schools would provide a vocational curriculum. The Senior High (Technical) Schools were intended to be part of the Technical College structure.

Existing schools

Clearly, this part of the plan was intended to apply to those areas where there were existing schools – that is Lurgan and Portadown. In the “New” part of the new city, lying between the two towns, a fully comprehensive system was to be established. A maintained school was built at Lismore, opening in September 1972, and a controlled school was built at Brownlow, opening in September 1973. Lismore has always been an 11-18 school, but Brownlow has operated until now for 11-16 only.

It is probably fair to say that the plan was always going to have to overcome significant difficulties. Most seriously, just as Mr Dickson had not been able to start his plan with a blank page, so the plan, when it was implemented, was not going to be operating in a vacuum. The largely unjustified criticisms, which linked the plan with the “comprehensive ideal”, led for a time to a significant amount of voting with the feet, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Lurgan area.

Since the 1947 Education Act Lurgan had tended to be the destination of choice for the Waringstown, Magheralin, Moira and Donacloney areas. However, as the Dickson Plan was being implemented, increasing numbers from those areas began to turn to Grammar Schools in Banbridge and Lisburn. Similarly, Portadown suffered in the Gilford and Richhill areas.

For some the supreme irony was that parents, who could afford to do so, could pay to send their children to the Preparatory Department of a Senior High School (which was, in itself, an anachronism, since pupils could no longer transfer directly to the Senior School), where they would be entered for the 11+ Transfer procedure, and then be able to obtain a place in a Grammar School outside the area!

Another problem that was probably not so easily anticipated was the tension that developed between the Intermediate Schools and Grammar Schools in the run up to the introduction of the plan. The Intermediate schools, at least in the controlled sector, were all of fairly recent establishment. Looking to the future, they saw themselves losing their senior pupils and entering a system where they would have no end product, in terms of examination results. In addition, the method then used to calculate the amount of money available in a school for promotion allowances was pupil age related, meaning that the Junior High Schools would suffer in comparison to the Senior Schools. There was also considerable resentment at what was perceived as the Senior High Schools attempting to influence the Junior High School curriculum.

History experience

My earliest experience of the Dickson Plan planning procedure was a meeting of History teachers from what were still the Grammar and Intermediate Schools. One of the Grammar School Heads of Department had spent a great deal of time drawing up a “model” History syllabus for the three years of the Junior High School programme, and I can still remember the total finality with which this work was dismissed by one of the Intermediate School principals. When the plan had been implemented it was, for a while, normal practice for Senior High School teachers to blame disappointing examination results on the inadequacies of the teaching at the Junior High Schools, and for Junior High School teachers to blame the Senior High Schools for letting their pupils down.

Another problem arose from the effects of the transfer on the pupils themselves. The Senior High schools found themselves launching straight into GCE (as it then was)courses with pupils whom they did not know and who were completely untried and untested. There is no doubt that Senior High School teachers felt themselves under severe pressure, with every class taught being an examination class, and with increasing pressure to deliver the goods in terms of examination results. The result of this, for the new pupils, was that they found themselves hit from the word go with a heavy workload. They also had to come to terms with a new set of teachers and a new school ethos, all this in what was essentially an examination factory environment. I think that it can safely be said that some found the transition difficult to make!


The maintained sector presented an altogether different, and in many ways more intractable, set of problems. There was no Catholic Grammar School in Portadown, and Catholic pupils traditionally travelled to schools in Armagh or Dungannon. In Lurgan there was a Grammar School, at St Michael’s, but it was an all-girl institution, run by the Sisters of Mercy. Again, Catholic boys usually travelled to Newry or Armagh. However, the real problem arose from the Dickson Plan’s proposals for the Senior High (Technical) schools. Essentially, it was proposed that pupils would transfer at age 14+ from both maintained and controlled Junior High Schools to what was really an integrated environment in the Technical College. Such a move, in the years of compulsory education, was not acceptable to the Church authorities.

Eventually, a compromise was reached that allowed the maintained Junior High Schools to retain pupils to age 16. This created its own problems, since the plan envisaged academically able pupils transferring to the Senior High (Grammar) school at 14+. There can be little doubt that there was a suspicion that some suitable pupils were held back in the Junior Schools to boost their examination results, before transferring to the Senior High school at 16. This arrangement only worked in the Lurgan area, since, as I have already noted, there was no maintained Senior High (Grammar) school in Portadown. The problem of St Michael’s was resolved by making it a coeducational school in the early 1970s, thus permitting the transfer of pupils from the maintained Junior High Schools, St Mary’s and St Paul’s, at age 14+ to St Michael’s. In Portadown, the maintained sector at secondary level was originally provided for by two High Schools, St Brigid’s, for girls and St Malachy’s, for boys. These two schools were amalgamated in 1985 to form Drumcree College, which is an 11-18 comprehensive school.

At this stage, it is probably appropriate to consider the way in which the three education sectors have developed over the past 40 years.

Primary schools

It is usual, in these days, to consider the closure of small primary schools as a recent phenomenon. This is far from the truth. The process of consolidating primary education into larger, and therefore more economically viable, units has been going on in this area for over seventy years.

I have already written in this journal of the Lurgan experience, where a number of smaller schools closed, to be replaced by larger units. When the County Education Committee was set up in the 1920s there were 10 primary schools under Protestant management in the Lurgan Urban District – Lurgan Model, the Poor Law Union School, North Street, Queen Street, Hill Street, John Street, Queen’s Place, Victoria Street, Lurgan Boys’ and Lurgan Girls’. By 1956, this had been reduced to three – King’s Park, Carrick and Lurgan Model, with Dickson being added later. Exactly the same process occurred in Portadown, although at a later stage. In the 1920s there were 8 schools under Protestant management in the Portadown Urban District – Portadown, Church Street, Edgarstown 1 and 2, Edenderry, Academy, Park Road and Thomas Street (I must confess to a little confusion here, in that I am not certain that Portadown and Church Street schools were separate institutions – though they did have separate Department of Education Roll numbers).

However, by the 1960s the number of schools had shrunk – Millington and Hart Memorial were new schools, while Edenderry had new and extended premises. Additionally, Richmount and Ballyoran schools continue to operate.

Richmount is probably one of the oldest primary schools still operating in the area, dating back to the 1840s. Today, it serves a rapidly developing area to the west of Portadown, and is housed in more modern buildings. In the area between the two towns, where the new city was to be built, there were long established controlled schools at Balteagh and Bluestone. These were closed by 1975 when the new schools at Drumgor and Bocombra had opened. These new schools were intended to handle more conveniently children from new housing developments associated with the new city. The opening of the then new Carrick Primary School in Lurgan in 1935 had led to the closure of the original Tullygally School.The building plans associated with the new city led to the building of a new school at Tullygally in the 1970s.

On the Catholic Maintained side a great deal of consolidation has already taken place, as on the controlled side. Over the years, schools at Silverwood, Lylo, Cohara, Curran Street (Portadown) and Corcrain had been closed, and that process has continued over the last 40 years. As a result of this the maintained primary sector in the Lurgan area has been consolidated as follows: St Francis’ and St Teresa’s (both in Lurgan), Tannaghmore, St Mary’s ( Derrytrasna) , St Mary’s (Gawley’s Gate), St Patrick’s (Aghagallon) and St Patrick’s (Ballymacbredan). In the Portadown area are: Presentation Primary School, St John the Baptist, Drumcree, St Patrick’s (Aghacommon) and St Mary’s (Annaghmore).

New city area

In the new city area a new school was built at Legahory in 1970, named St Anthony’s. It was not long before this school was overfull, and it became an urgent necessity to establish a second school. This was built at Moyraverty and named St Brendan’s. While the new buildings were being constructed for St Brendan’s, the children used accommodation provided at Lismore Comprehensive School. These two schools provide, between them, accommodation for over 1,000 pupils, with a present school population of about 900. St Anthony’s, as originally built, was a system-built structure using a system called the Anderson A75, used extensively in the UK. This was, I believe, its first application in Northern Ireland. That building was so badly damaged in the bomb explosion at Craigavon Police base in 1991 that it had to be demolished and replaced.

St Anthony’s Voluntary Primary School
St Anthony’s Voluntary Primary School in 1973

It is, perhaps, appropriate to note that the Craigavon system impacts on schools outside the immediate Craigavon area. I hesitate to use lists, since they are often of little benefit. However, it is clear that, with the onset of “parental choice” , parents outside the immediate Craigavon area have begun to see the advantages of the Dickson Plan, particularly for pupils who have just missed out on a grammar school place. This list may help explain. Controlled Junior High Schools in the Dickson Plan area have recruited pupils from the following Primary Schools: Annaghmore, Ardmore, Ballinderry, Ballycarrickmaddy, Ballyoran, Birches, Bleary, Bocombra, Carrick, Clare, Craigavon (Gilford), Derryhale, Dickson, Donacloney, Drumgor, Edenderry, Hardy Memorial, Hart Memorial, King’s Park, Maghabery, Maralin, Meadow Bridge, Millington, Moira, Moyallon, Mullaglass, Mullavilly, Orchard County, Portadown Integrated, Poyntzpass, Richmount, Scarva, Seagoe, St James, St John’s (Moira), Tamnamore, Tandragee, The Cope, Tullygally and Waringstown.

The only details I have for the maintained sector refer to Lismore, which names the following contributory Primary Schools: St Anthony’s, St Brendan’s, Drumgor, Tullygally (all in central Craigavon), St John’s (Gilford), St Colman’s (Moira), St Colman’s (Laurencetown), St Teresa’s (Lurgan) St Patrick’s (Aghacommon), St Patrick’s (Aghagallon), St Patrick’s (Maralin), St John the Baptist (Portadown), St Mary’s (Banbridge), St Mary’s (Derrytrasna), St Mary’s (Derrymore), Tannaghmore, Presentation (Portadown) and Ballyoran. While these lists may not be exhaustive, they do give some idea of the extent of the Dickson Plan’s influence.

A couple of other schools need to be mentioned. Seagoe Primary School is a rare example of a maintained school under Protestant management – it is one of very few such schools which were not transferred to state control. The Integrated Education movement is also active in the area and is represented by Portadown Integrated Primary School (PIPS).

Junior High Schools

Initially there were seven Junior High Schools associated with the Dickson Plan. Killicomaine, Clounagh and Tandragee fed into Portadown College; Lurgan Boys’ and Lurgan Girls’ fed into Lurgan College; and St Mary’s and St Paul’s fed into St Michael’s. St Mary’s was, essentially, a continuation of the Convent school that had operated in Edward Street in Lurgan since 1866, but most of the remaining schools dated from the 1950s. It should be noted that Tandragee is not officially in Craigavon – it is actually in the Armagh district – but it was linked with the Dickson Plan because the town’s educational links were traditionally with the Portadown area.

The major change over the years occurred when Lurgan Boys’ and Lurgan Girls’ were amalgamated. This occurred following the retirement of Mr Tom Canning as Headmaster of the Boys’ School. Mrs Mary Ferris, who had been the first Headmistress of the Girls’ school when it was founded in 1957, took over the amalgamated school, to be replaced, on her retirement, by Mr Joe Johnston, who is still in charge. The two Junior High Schools in Portadown (Killicomaine and Clounagh) were significantly bigger than the Lurgan schools and this led to Portadown College being much larger than Lurgan College.

Over the years, the prejudice against the Dickson Plan has diminished, due, in no small measure, to the much closer co-operation that had developed between the Junior and Senior schools, and to the resulting improvement in academic performance. As a result, there is increasing confidence among parents in the two-tier system, and this is reflected in growing numbers, particularly in Lurgan (where numbers in Lurgan College have increased from 300 to over 400 over the past 20 years). Nevertheless the grammar schools in Banbridge, Lisburn and Armagh still benefit to a degree from pupils travelling to them from areas that were, 40 years ago, natural feeders to the Craigavon area schools.

Senior High (Grammar) Schools

All three Senior High (Grammar) Schools in the area can now be considered as flourishing. In the early days this was not always the case. Lurgan College has already been mentioned. In 1968, when the last 11 year olds entered the school, numbers had reached almost 500. By 1982, a decade into the plan, numbers had fallen to about 300. There were many reasons for this, some of which have already been discussed. Probably the most important reason, however, was demographic change. One of the most obvious impacts of “the troubles” on Lurgan was the sectarian division of the town. North Lurgan, where Lurgan College is situated, became predominantly Catholic, while the Protestant population moved to the South and East of the town, particularly the Waringstown, Donacloney and Moira areas.

Lurgan College

Primary schools in these areas were already linked with grammar schools in Banbridge and Lisburn and all, as a matter of course, entered pupils, if desired, for the transfer tests at 11+. The situation at St Michael’s was slightly different. Although some families still sent their children out of the area, the local schools were, by and large, strongly supported. However, the issue of retention of pupils by the Junior High Schools to 16+ did create some problems as noted earlier. The introduction of the GCSE examinations in 1985, along with the Common Curriculum, blurred this situation even further, since pupils at St Mary’s, St Paul’s and St Michael’s were all sitting the same examinations.

It is probably fair to say that the Dickson Plan bedded down in Portadown more quickly and more effectively than it did in Lurgan. This is probably largely due to the appointment of Mr Harry Armstrong as Headmaster of Portadown College in 1973, in succession to the legendary Donald Woodman. Mr Armstrong had been Deputy Director of Education in Armagh, under Mr Dickson, and had played a significant role in the planning and implementation of the Dickson Plan. This background gave him an unrivalled understanding of the system and, more importantly, of the potential within it for development. As a result, Portadown College was flourishing numerically and academically when both Lurgan Schools were struggling to find their feet. The last 20 years have seen a dramatic turn round in this situation. All three schools are now flourishing and are producing enviable examination results at all levels.

Portadown College was originally situated in Edenderry House, but moved into new buildings on the present site in 1962. St Michael’s, although still having some of the original buildings, is also housed in relatively up-to-date premises. Lurgan College, while still using the original 1873 buildings, is largely housed in premises dating from 1955 – 1968. Both Lurgan and Portadown Colleges are among the schools listed during 2006 for a new build. In Portadown some of the more recent additions will be retained, while the 1962 buildings will be replaced by new construction on the same site. For Lurgan the decision has been taken that the red brick frontage, which is a Grade 2 listed building, will be retained, but the buildings behind dating from 1955 – 1968 will be replaced.

Senior High (Technical)

This is the one area where the original Dickson Plan has run into real problems. When the plan was being formulated today’s ideas of Further and Higher education were far in the future. As a result, the proposal that the technical colleges, as they then were, would provide for the education of those Junior High School pupils who did not gain admission to the Senior High (Grammar) Schools was seen as eminently reasonable. The Technical Colleges in Portadown and Lurgan had both the staff and the facilities to provide a more vocationally orientated education, and the availability of appropriate post-16 courses on the same campus was an added bonus. From the start, however, the Senior High (Technical) element of the plan created problems. It proved hard to avoid the accusation that these were just “sink schools” that kept pupils off the streets for the last years of compulsory education. This was a most unfortunate situation, because, certainly in the early years, the Technical Colleges did some exceptional work, despite the suspicion that some Technical College lecturers did not relish having to deal with 14 year olds.

However the whole system was effectively thrown into crisis by two significant educational developments. First there was the replacement of the old GCE/CSE examinations by the new GCSE in 1985. This was intended to be a common examination for all 16 year olds. Add to this Mrs Thatcher’s idea of a “national” or “common” curriculum which required all pupils to study the same basic subjects up to GCSE level and you reach the situation where pupils at the Senior High (Technical) schools, rather than following a vocational syllabus, were having to study the same subjects as pupils at the Senior High (Grammar) schools and sit the same examinations at the end of their course. Thus, with one stroke, the government had effectively destroyed the raison d’être of the separate schools post 14. If that were not bad enough, government policy on training and qualifications saw the Technical Colleges becoming Colleges of Further Education – Portadown Technical College became Portadown College of Further Education in 1983.

Upper Bann Institute of Further Education

On 1st September 1994 the Technical Colleges in Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge merged to form the Upper Bann Institute of Further Education. The whole thrust of the Further Education sector was to provide courses for students post GCSE level. By 1998 the sector had expanded yet again to become the Further and Higher Education sector, with courses now provided for students post A level, up to degree standard. It must be clear that the presence of the “Senior High School” element in such an institution was increasingly seen as an anachronism. For a while it seemed that this problem might threaten the survival of the entire Dickson Plan, since there was once again the threat of “voting with the feet”, not this time by parents of potential grammar school pupils, but by those whose children would probably not get to the Senior High (Grammar) School, and who saw the provision for their children as totally inadequate.

The solution to this problem was to create a totally new school to provide for the pupils leaving the Junior High Schools but not going to the Senior High (Grammar) sector. There was, originally, a proposal that one brand new school would be built to provide for the entire area. Indeed, a site was identified at Highfield, not far from Craigavon Centre. This proposal met with vociferous opposition from the other sectors in Lurgan and Portadown and was dropped. In the end it was decided to establish the new school in the existing Upper Bann Institute premises in Portadown and Lurgan, but separated from the Further and Higher education College elements. The new school, known as Craigavon Senior High School, came into existence on 1st September 1995.

The Portadown campus, on the Lurgan Road, is the main facility, where the Principal and administration are based. The Lurgan Campus is much smaller, and is based in the UBI premises at Kitchen Hill. The Principal, Mr D Mehaffey, has overall responsibility for the whole school, while the two Vice-Principals serve as Campus Managers one in Lurgan, the other in Portadown. The establishment of Craigavon Senior High School, and, more importantly, its success in establishing itself as a viable and attractive alternative to the Senior High (Grammar) schools for pupils not wishing to transfer there, has been largely responsible for the stabilising of the position in the two-tier system over the past ten years.

In rounding up this review, I must refer to some other educational developments affecting the area. Brownlow High School, opened in 1973, faced problems almost from the start. Its source population never reached the numbers predicted, and indeed showed signs of declining as time passed. C2K, formerly the CLASS organisation, which supports computer systems in schools, has taken over some of the empty rooms, while Craigavon Teachers’ Centre occupies others. During 1990 – 1991 there was widespread consultation, including a parental ballot, leading to the decision to seek Integrated status. Thus, on 1st September 1991, Brownlow High School became Brownlow Integrated School. This move has very effectively reversed the decline in numbers, and the school now has over 400 pupils. This has, of course, placed pressure on accommodation, and the school is now seeking to reclaim the facilities occupied by C2K and the Teachers’ Centre. It is also seeking to establish post GCSE classes.

There is another integrated school in the Craigavon area. In 1990 the North Armagh Group for Integrated Education opened an integrated Primary School in Portadown, initially based in portacabins at Chambers Park , home of Portadown Rugby Club. From the original enrolment of 20 the school quickly grew to over 200, and moved into semi-permanent buildings at Kernan in 1992. Since then pupils numbers have remained at or about the 200 mark. There is also an Independent Christian School in Portadown, associated with the Free Presbyterian Church there. It has been in existence since 1988.

Irish Medium Schools

Another area of education that has emerged in recent years is the Irish Medium system. In the Craigavon area at the moment there are Primary level schools in Portadown and Lurgan. These fall into two groups. The Naoiscoil are basically pre-school groups for children age 3-4. In Lurgan Naoiscoil Chois Locha is an independent unit which operates on the St Francis’ site in Francis Street. It was opened in 1999, and has 19 children on its books. In Portadown, Naoiscoil na Banna operates in conjunction with St John the Baptist school on the Garvaghy Road. It was opened in 1995 and has 17 children on its books. The second group of schools are the Bunscoil (or primary schools). In Craigavon, the two Bunscoil operate as units within existing Primary Schools. Bunscoil Naomh Prionsias is part of St Francis’ Primary School in Lurgan. It began operating in 2000, and has 55 pupils. Up to 2006 it provided classes only for P1 – P5 pupils, but in 2007 this will be extended to cover P6 and P7 as well. In Portadown Bunscoil Eoin Baiste is part of St John the Baptist Primary School. It opened in 1998 and has 53 pupils. There is presently no provision for Irish Medium education at post primary level in Craigavon, but there is a post primary unit at St Catherine’s in Armagh.

Preparatory Schools

I have said nothing so far about the Preparatory Schools associated with the former Grammar Schools in Lurgan and Portadown. In both cases, the preparatory departments had been established to provide a guaranteed intake into the senior school at a time when there was fierce competition for pupils.

In the case of Lurgan College, the Prep Department had started in premises in the town centre, before moving down to the Lough Road site. By 1967 the entire justification for a preparatory department had been removed with the implementation of the Dickson Plan, yet the two preps soldiered on as fee-paying schools. As I have already suggested, some parents used these schools as a means of getting their offspring into grammar schools outside the Dickson Plan area, and this caused constant friction. During the 1980s and 1990s numbers fell to between 30 and 40 in Lurgan and to between 40 and 50 in Portadown. At this level of support they could not really support themselves on the income from fees. The introduction of LMS (Local Management of Schools), which made individual schools responsible for running their own budgets, increased the pressure on the prep departments.

The pressure on the senior school budgets was such that every item of expenditure was open to scrutiny, and thus the inevitable happened. The need to make the prep departments self-supporting forced fees up to a level that parents were unwilling to pay, and numbers began to fall. The first to succumb was Lurgan College Prep, which officially closed at the end of June 2004, although the last pupils had left before this. Portadown College Prep followed suit a year later. While there is no doubt that the prep departments provided a first-rate education and met a genuine demand, they were an anachronism, and their demise was only really a matter of time once the survival of the Dickson Plan was certain.

Local Management of Schools

Other changes have occurred over the past forty years that have impacted on all schools in Craigavon. I have already referred to the LMS system, the introduction of which gave schools a much greater say in how their budget was spent. In larger schools there is no doubt that this liberty was greatly appreciated, although one by-product of it has been the need to employ additional administrative staff in schools to operate the new system.

In smaller schools, particularly those with teaching principals, the system has been a mixed blessing, being seen as responsible for a significant increase in a principal’s administrative responsibilities. There also remains the problem that, at present, principals are recruited from amongst serving teachers, and this does not necessarily provide the expertise necessary to run a budget often in excess of £1 million. As a result a minority of schools have found themselves in financial difficulties.

Alongside the introduction of Local Management, there came the replacement of the old Management Committees in Controlled Schools by Boards of Governors, with enhanced responsibilities. The result of this, as with LMS, has been to give schools significantly greater control over their own affairs. As I have already noted, there has been a major revamp of the Further Education system, culminating in 1998 with the establishment of 16 “free standing” Institutes of Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland, of which the Upper Bann Institute is one. Developments in Further and Higher Education have significantly enhanced the standard of provision in the Craigavon area over the past decade.

Education reform

Clearly, there have been some fundamental changes in education in Craigavon over the past 40 years. The entire educational environment has been changed beyond recognition. At the moment there are far reaching proposals for education reform in Northern Ireland, centring on the proposal to abolish selection at 11+. Not only that, but the recent Bain Report has suggested draconian measures to deal with the over-supply of school places in the Province. There is no doubt that the next 40 years will see changes every bit as far-reaching as those that have been described in this article.

One of the most remarkable things over recent months has been the way in which the Dickson Plan has once again surfaced as a possible way forward in Northern Ireland. For years it was seen in the rest of the Province as something of an aberration. Now it is seen by some as offering an acceptable “half way house” to a fully comprehensive system such has been proposed by some Direct Rule ministers. Whether anything will come of this, it is hard to say. Much, I suppose, will depend on political developments that are far beyond the scope of this article. All that we can say is “only time will tell”!

IW 2007