Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Education chief John O'Dowd's bid to slash funds sparks public backlash

Education Minister John O'Dowd  has refused to extend a public consultation around a proposed schools' funding shake-up
Education Minister John O'Dowd has refused to extend a public consultation around a proposed schools' funding shake-up

Parents have contacted the Education Minister John O'Dowd personally about a controversial proposal to slash funding for pupils with literacy, numeracy and undiagnosed behavioural issues.

The changes would come under the proposed current shake-up of schools funding, which critics say will create inequality by taking funds away from already disadvantaged schools.

Now Mr O'Dowd has revealed that he is also considering the viability of a proposal which would see funding for children with additional educational needs cut.

However, he has again refused to extend a public consultation around a proposed schools' funding shake-up – which has prompted a public backlash.

The plans contain a proposal to scrap a strand of funding called the Warnock Factor.

Introduced on the back of the 1970s Warnock report, the Warnock Factor allocates funding to primary schools so they can finance programmes for children with additional educational needs.

Those needs range from literacy and numeracy issues to children with autism or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who are awaiting an official 'statement' of their special education needs. Special needs funding has been ring-fenced.

"One of the elements (of the proposals) is the Warnock Factor. That has been raised on a personal level... by parents and teachers and I'm looking at that," Mr O'Dowd told the Assembly yesterday.

On Monday night, Craigavon Borough Council – in Mr O'Dowd's constituency – voted in favour of a motion calling on him to review the plans and "ensure that equality for all schools is maintained as a basic principle".

Every party, except for Sinn Fein, backed the SDLP motion. Critics claim the shake-up would actually create disadvantage across swathes of the school population, by taking funding from pupils with lower levels of social deprivation.

The plan would see large chunks of the schools' budget redirected to schools with a large number of pupils receiving free school meals, which is used as the measure of social deprivation.

However, the proposals include several anomalies.

Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that around one-third of Northern Ireland's 241 most deprived primary schools will actually lose money under plans designed to help 'poorer' pupils.

The vast majority of elite grammar schools will also gain significantly.

Despite growing public opposition, Mr O'Dowd again refused yesterday to extend a public consultation on the proposals.

More than 14,000 responses have been submitted to the public consultation, including 3,000 from young people.

However, the consultation was criticised following claims that public meetings were poorly advertised. Half of the eight-week consultation was held during schools' summer holidays.

Parents pressured to stick with Dickson Plan, claims O'Dowd

Parents are being heckled at school prize-givings for voicing alternatives to the endangered Dickson Plan, the Education Minister has claimed.

John O'Dowd told the Assembly he has been contacted by parents who claim their opinions are being suppressed because they have suggested an alternative future to the current post-primary system in place in the Craigavon area.

Schools in Craigavon operate a system known as the Dickson Plan, which delays academic selection until the age of 14 and is unique to the area.

However, the 40-year-old system faces being shelved under a proposal recommended by the local Southern Education and Library Board in June.

That proposal prompted fury among some parents and teachers at the time – with unionist politicians vowing to refer the matter to the Equality Commission or take the decision out of the Education Minister's hands.

Responding to a question yesterday from UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson – who supports the Dickson Plan – Mr O'Dowd said: "Teachers and principals are all feeling significant pressure not to change the Dickson Plan."

Mr O'Dowd – a Sinn Fein MLA – has been criticised for repeatedly describing the Dickson Plan as "not serving all the needs of young people".

The final decision on its future rests with him and is expected to be delivered before Christmas.

The current proposal for change would see a bi-lateral school established in Portadown and Lurgan, following a series of amalgamations of local high schools with the area's existing controlled grammar schools, Portadown College and Lurgan College.

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