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Third of Northern Ireland schools in poor areas will lose cash under John O'Dowd's plan, as some top colleges are given more

By Anna Maguire

Around one-third of Northern Ireland's most deprived primary schools will lose funding under plans to help poorer pupils – while prestigious grammar schools such as Methodist College are set to make significant gains.

An analysis of proposed changes to schools' funding reveals that 79 (32.7%) of Northern Ireland's 241 most deprived schools will actually lose money annually.

Another 162 schools with the highest levels of social deprivation will see their 2013/14 budgets increase under the current estimates.

In all of the 79 schools, 37% or more of the pupils receive free school meals – the indicator used to measure a school's social deprivation.

Under its Extended Schools Initiative, the Department of Education identifies Northern Ireland's most deprived schools as those with 37% or more pupils on free schools.

The Extended Schools programme targets funding at "schools serving the most disadvantaged communities", according to the Department of Education's literature.

The funding cuts in these 79 'deprived' schools range from an annual £150 to just over £31,600 in the case of St John The Baptist Primary School in Belfast, where 40% of pupils receive free school meals.

Yet, the whole idea of the Department of Education-backed plan to radically change how schools are funded is to direct more money towards pupils from socially deprived backgrounds.

The shake-up is controversial because it will target social deprivation by shaving tens of thousands from the budgets of schools in more affluent areas – a move which schools warn will mean fewer classroom assistants, initiatives and resources.

Yet a number of grammar schools are also set to benefit including Methodist College (Methody), Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst) and Victoria College, all of which have fee-paying preparatory departments, with fees in excess of £2,500 per pupil a year, attached to their schools.

The proposed funding boost will not benefit grammars' prep departments, however.

Carr's Glen Primary School is set to lose £12,127 from its 2013/14 budget under current estimates. Just over 38% of pupils at the north Belfast school receive free schools.

Principal Derek Harkness has warned that the controversial funding shake-up will create a "hierarchy of deprivation" and is "discriminatory" in its approach.

"The potential is that your child is worth more if you are living in a more deprived area. And therefore a school can afford to fund more initiatives, employ more teachers and get better resources," he said.

"We need to try and target high deprivation, that is very important. But this is not addressing that. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"Just because we do not have 70% of pupils on free school meals, that does not mean we do not have those issues coming across our door.

"Our free school meals entitlement has doubled in four years. Do we have more children coming here with social issues, with speech and language problems or who potentially have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or are on the autistic spectrum? Yes we do."

Mr Harkness said the scale of 'deprived' schools losing money under the proposals exposes the contradictions in the proposed reforms.

Education Minister John O'Dowd – who is under increasing pressure to rethink the reforms – has conceded that the proposals throw up anomalies.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said last night: "Schools were previously funded for the size of building they had. They were also funded for the size of sports facilities they had. One of the proposals is that all that funding should be lumped into a single payment for pupils. That is an anomaly in the system and the minister has already said that this is one of the areas he is keen to look at as part of the consultation response."

An overriding anomaly is the scale on which grammar schools will benefit under the proposals. A total of 60 of Northern Ireland's 68 grammar schools will gain anything from £19,405 (Lumen Christi College, Londonderry) to £78,320 (Thornhill College, also in Derry).

It is thought that the elite schools will benefit based on the size of their school population, which is why Methody, Inst and Victoria College all receive a boost.

What are the changes, and why are they so controversial?

Q What exactly do the proposed changes to the way schools are funded involve?

A The proposals are contained in a 160-page report, which was commissioned by Education Minister John O'Dowd last year.

The report assesses the effectiveness of the current system of deciding how much money every school in Northern Ireland receives annually, and how it should be changed.

The extensive review of schools was led by Professor Sir Robert Salisbury.

Q So what ultimately are the proposals?

A The following changes are proposed:

* A revised system for how schools are funded will primarily target pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

Under this new system, schools with high levels of children from socially deprived backgrounds will receive significantly more funding.

Schools in more affluent areas would lose thousands of pounds in funding through the funding re-allocation.

* The percentage of pupils receiving free schools meals should continue to be used to measure a school's social deprivation levels. That measure is controversial because it does not take account of the working poor, according to critics. However, the report recommends consideration of an alternative measure of social deprivation.

* More funding for pupils in foster care and from Roma or Traveller backgrounds.

Q Why are the plans so controversial?

A Critics say the proposals will go so far to financially benefit schools in socially deprived areas that they will harm the education of pupils at schools in more affluent areas.

Schools due to fare worst financially have warned they will lose teachers, classrooms assistants and initiatives for pupils with additional educational needs.

The removal of funding allocated through the Warnock factor is particularly controversial. Schools receive thousands of pounds to help pupils with additional educational needs, such as problems with literacy and numeracy or behavioural issues. That funding will be cut under the proposals and re-allocated to schools with high levels of pupils from socially deprived backgrounds, but largely lost in schools in more affluent areas.

Q What has the Education Minister, John O'Dowd (left), said about the proposals?

A The Education Minister has backed the plans. In a hard-hitting statement on October 25, on the last day of a public consultation around the proposals, he pointed to targeting social deprivation as his key priority.

Hitting out at school principals who have voiced their concerns around the reforms, under which their schools could actually benefit, he said: "If... (the proposals) annoy some school principals, even if they are set to benefit from it, so be it. I am more annoyed that these young people's life chances are being decided by their parents' income or lack of it."

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