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Sinn Fein revolt over John O'Dowd's schools funding shake-up grows

Two councils controlled by party break ranks and voice opposition

By Anna Maguire

Two Sinn Fein-dominated councils have voiced their opposition to a schools funding shake-up proposed by the party's Education Minister John O'Dowd.

Fermanagh District Council has warned that proposals backed by Mr O'Dowd will result in "considerable turbulence" in the distribution of funding for schools in the county.

The authority's stand is significant because Sinn Fein holds a majority on the council with nine councillors, the largest of any party.

Strabane District Council, which is also dominated by Sinn Fein, has said it cannot support "any significant reductions in (school) budgets in these financially challenging times".

The councils set out their position in separate submissions to the Department of Education's public consultation on the proposals.

The submissions were approved by councillors on both councils.

The shake-up will see the stream of funding redirected, so schools with high levels of social deprivation get significantly more, while schools in more 'affluent' areas will suffer cuts.

A school's deprivation is determined by the number of pupils who are entitled to free school meals.

Around three-quarters (76%) of schools in the Strabane District Council area will experience funding cuts under Mr O'Dowd's proposed reforms.

Strabane District Council has warned that the Education Minister risks jeopardising his department's key policies – to raise standards and build a network of sustainable schools – if he pushes ahead with the funding changes

It also stated its opposition to two key reforms – which would see a primary school's funding decided on the basis of pupils' social deprivation rather than their academic success, and any extra money pumped into schools with high disadvantage.

Crucially, Strabane Council stated that it is "not sure" if it supports the reforms' core proposal to give more money to the most socially deprived schools.

Michelle McMackin, a Sinn Fein councillor in Strabane, has questioned the accuracy of using free school meals to measure social deprivation in schools.

Echoing concerns raised in Strabane Council's submission, she pointed to swathes of "working poor" – working parents who have to choose between "eating or heating".

Speaking after a "fiery" public meeting where parents were "up in arms" about the proposals, she said she empathises with concerns in her rural Co Tyrone community of Glenelly.

"I think every rural area is being targeted and the numbers are there for people to read.

"They will look at those and the first thing that will come in to their head is, 'oh my God, we are not going to be sustainable because we are now losing that money?'."

Ms McMackin – who will stand down before the forthcoming local elections – stressed her support for Mr O'Dowd's objective to tackle social disadvantage.

She said: "I'm not going to knock my own minister but I have concerns where a lot of cuts have gone to rural schools and how that will implicate on principals and the running of their school."

The rural primary school, where more than a third of pupils receive free school meals, could lose £1,575 under the proposals.

She has called for extra funding for small, sustainable schools, to offset the funding they are set to lose under the planned financial shake-up.

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