Budget fears push Northern Ireland school to fundraise so services can continue
A Northern Ireland primary school has started fundraising in a bid to save vital services from becoming the latest casualty of budget cuts due to the current Stormont stalemate.
The failure of the most recent political talks to restore a power-sharing Executive means important budget allocations have been on hold since January.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire previously warned if agreement wasn't found, education faces a 2.5% cut.
The Education Authority and Department of Education said it is not known where the extra funding received in the £1bn DUP-Tory deal will be allocated.
Schools have been warned they must not overspend.
The principal of Lowwood Primary School in north Belfast, David Patterson, says he has never experienced such financial challenges. He told the Belfast Telegraph it is "playing with people's lives" and has written to parents explaining the difficulties.
Mr Patterson said: "How do we plan through uncertainty? You are getting emails from the Department saying 'don't dare spend more money than you have in your budget' but when we probably know we will be given a little extra money, but say you can't plan for that. So what do we do? Make three or four people redundant on the back of something that might not happen? That's not fair to the kids or employees."
For 19 years the school has had a special needs co-ordinator outside the classroom fully allocated to the children - and now, as a result, they will be in the classroom teaching full-time.
Mr Patterson says schools are facing an "impossible task".
He said: "When you are dealing with children's lives and their education and you are trying your best to give them opportunities and it's the things like breakfast clubs, counselling, parent groups - they are all what we see as essential services, especially working with vulnerable kids in north Belfast as we do.
"With our budgets being the way they are at the minute, we are being cut right down to the quick, so we don't have any margins to work with and we are being asked to balance the books, but we aren't being given full information."
He added: "It seems to be the same old problem, until we get resolution politically then it's bit of a stand-off. We are having to produce something without all the information right at the eleventh hour when we have all had to make changes and alterations to our staffing based on whatever our indicative budget is, which might not actually be our budget."
Mr Patterson said he was "heartened" by the response of parents who are fundraising to save services.
The Department of Education said it is facing "major financial pressures in 2017-18 if it is to operate within its budget.
"Consequently, options to reduce spending across all programme areas are having to be explored," a spokesman said.
"Final decisions on the scale of the budget reductions have not been taken in all areas and will depend on the department's final budget allocation.
"Those decisions that have been made have been communicated to the relevant organisations, including schools which were provided with their 2017-18 allocation in a letter from the Department on June 21."
The Education Authority said: "Schools were asked to complete and submit their financial plan for the 2017/18 year by a specified date in August. EA acknowledges that, due to circumstances outside its control, the timing is far from ideal and is grateful for the proactive way in which hundreds of schools have already engaged with the process over the past week."