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22/09/2021

Derry principals hit back at ‘extremely disingenuous’ statement from education chiefs over funding crisis

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By Garrett Hargan Reporter Derry primary school principals have hit back at ‘extremely disingenuous’ comments made by the education chiefs which they say failed to address the seriousness of the current funding crisis. Local principals have decided that a Department of Education (DE) statement, which suggested that Derry and the north west has benefited from ‘significant’ investment, could not go unanswered. These issues came to the fore last week when a letter emerged, signed by around 30 Derry schools, which had been sent to parents in the city outlining the full extent of the ‘funding crisis’ facing local educators at present. In a lengthy statement sent to the Derry News the principals have said the DE response, and its references to capital investment, were an attempt to ‘divert attention’ away from the existing crisis, as there are two basic funding streams. The first is capital funding, related to new-builds and renovations, while the other is recurrent funding for the day-to-day running of schools – which is their greatest cause for concern. Fundamental requirements for schools and their young pupils such as ‘heating and lighting’ have also been cited as issues in the latest statement. The school leaders and their communities vowed to continue challenging the DE, the Education Authority (EA), local politicians and the British government to deliver adequate funding until the matter is ‘fully resolved’ and those with a ‘moral and professional responsibility deliver for our children.’ The principals took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to parents last week highlighting the desperate reality facing local schools. Since then, the Department of Education has accepted it does not have the money available to meet the ‘additional pressures’ in education this year and conceded that the current situation is unsustainable. It recognised the achievements of local primary schools, however, it added: “Firm financial management and budgetary discretion will need to be applied by schools and difficult decisions will need to be taken to live within budget. “It is recognised that in the longer term the education sector requires significant and radical transformation if it is to be put on a sustainable financial footing. “All departments must live within their final budget allocation in any year.” Addressing concerns about capital investment, the department also said that Derry and the north west has ‘benefited’ from ‘significant capital announcements’ in recent years. The DE referred to investment of £15m in new build schools for Eglinton PS, Ebrington PS, Gaelscoil Uí Dhochartaigh (Strabane) and Our Lady of Fatima PS which ‘have been completed or are currently in planning/construction’. And added that additional investments totalling over £9m which ‘have been made or will be made’ in four primary schools under the School Enhancement Programme. ‘Extremely disingenuous’ In response primary school principals in Derry have collectively directed a statement at the department of education in which they say it is being ‘disingenuous’ and pledged that the campaign for ‘adequate funding for our children will not cease’. They said: “The Department’s attempt to divert attention away from our concerns by highlighting the capital investment in the North West appears to be very disingenuous in the extreme. The Department, school leaders and all involved in education recognise that the two basic funding streams in education are capital and recurrent funding. “As school leaders, we have highlighted the total inadequacy of the recurrent funding that is delivered to schools to meet the day to day costs yet the Department in their response decide to speak about capital expenditure. “Our school leaders once again wish to communicate that the current funding needed for day to day running costs is insufficient. Funding cuts to staffing, building maintenance, heating and lighting and resources for children have had a significant negative effect on our children and on our ability, as Principals, to address their needs.” Their statement continued: “While we all try to exploit other funding opportunities to address this shortfall it has become impossible to address the deficit fully. This has been emphasised today (October 16) again when the NI Audit office released a report that outlines how school funding has fallen by almost ten per cent in real terms over the past 5 years. “School communities have been very proud of the high standards of care and achievement that they have been able to deliver over the years and they will not stand by and allow them to be compromised by lack of adequate funding and accordingly we will continue to challenge our Department of Education, the Education Authority, our politicians and the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley to deliver an appropriate level of core funding to the school level where it makes its greatest impact. “The campaign for adequate funding for our children will not cease until it is fully resolved and the principals and school communities will hold to account those who have both a moral and professional responsibility to deliver for our children and young people.” The school leaders concluded by asking local politicians, now that they know the extent of the crisis and the diversion of money away from schools and into the ‘administrative monolith’ (EA), what action are they going to take. ‘Tipping point’ The letter issued last week stated that funding has been reduced by approximately four per cent, which is equivalent to £70 less per child, and means that the ‘educational and emotional needs’ of children are not being met. Principals highlighted how greater demand is being placed on both parents and staff to mitigate the problems. Schools have been holding fundraising events to generate money for basic supplies and parents have been left to pay for extra-curricular activities as schools can no longer have the finances. They are also being forced to cut teaching and support staff which is having knock-on effects, not only for pupils, but on staff who are put under severe pressure to deliver the curriculum on a ‘shoestring budget’. At a Westminster meeting last week, Joyce Bill, Director of Finance and ICT at the Education Authority, also said there is a significant school maintenance backlog which is somewhere in the region of £360m. And earlier this week the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) the education system was ‘close to a tipping point’ as school budgets have been reduced by about ten per cent in real terms over the past five years.

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