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Sinn Fein councillors express reservations at John O'Dowd's school funding reform

By Anna Maguire

Sinn Fein councillors have expressed reservations about controversial changes to schools' funding which are being spearheaded by their party colleague, Education Minister John O'Dowd.

A total of 670 out of 832 primary schools could lose money for teachers, classroom assistants and resources from 2014/15, under unprecedented proposals to inject funding into schools in socially deprived areas.

That money will be shaved off the budgets of other schools, prompting questions around the future funding and staffing for initiatives to help struggling pupils and other issues.

However, concern is mounting in the education sector and wider communities with three principals raising fears, although their schools will gain between £80,000 and £180,000 if the shake-up is rubber-stamped.

Anne Brolly, a long-standing Sinn Fein councillor and board member of the Western Education and Library Board, expressed reservations about whether the current proposals strike the right balance between much-needed reform to break links between social deprivation and educational under-achievement while maintaining education standards in schools which could lose up to £40,000 annually.

"I think there are a lot of avenues we have to go down before we can eventually say, 'yes, we got it right'.

"The challenge is, how do we get the balance?" she told the Belfast Telegraph. "Hopefully, we will get it right. Nobody wants to lose money. Everybody in schools are strapped."

Just over 140 primary schools in the Western Education and Library Board area, Mrs Brolly's constituency, are set to lose funding under the proposed changes, with 45 schools to gain financially.

Many of the area's grammar and non-selective post-primary schools will also benefit, under the blueprint.

The shake-up in the north west reflects the wider picture, with 80% of all schools here set to lose funding to varying degrees.

Glenn Campbell, a Sinn Fein councillor and lecturer at Omagh's South West College, also raised questions around the implications for schools in the north west.

Mr Campbell sits on the board of governors of St Lawrence's Primary School in Fintona, which could lose £5,006, and St Patrick's Primary in Eskra, Tyrone, which could lose £3,336 annually.

"You cannot help schools that need it most if it's going to have a very negative impact on others (schools)," he said. Both Mrs Brolly and Mr Campbell stressed that they support the drive to address historic under-achievement among pupils from areas struggling with years of deprivation and funding issues.

Mrs Brolly said it was high time the "poverty of aspirations" among generations of young people in areas of social deprivation was targeted, particularly in the midst of a protracted economic slump.

Mervyn Storey, DUP chair of the Assembly's education committee and an opponent of the plans, said the remarks by the Sinn Fein councillors were an "indication that the (Education) minister Mr O'Dowd has not got this right".

The education minister has started trawling through more than 11,000 responses to a public consultation focusing on the planned reforms, which closed on Friday evening.

BACKGROUND

Under the proposed changes to how schools are funded, those with high levels of children from socially deprived backgrounds will receive much more funding, with schools in other areas set to lose thousands of pounds. Social deprivation is measured by the uptake of free school meals, which critics describe as a crude, inadequate measure. The shake-up would affect all schools in Northern Ireland if it is approved by Education Minister John O'Dowd.

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