Belfast Telegraph

Families facing fresh financial woe as school uniform grants slashed

By Rebecca Black

A major funding cut to a scheme to help lower income families buy school uniforms has sparked a political blame game.

The Education Authority says it has been instructed by the Department of Education to slash the Clothing Allowance Scheme by £3m - from the £4.9m spent in 2016/17 to just £1.9m in 2017/18.

About 98,000 pupils in Northern Ireland received a grant to help them buy their uniforms during the last school year.

The amount of help ranges from £35.75 for a primary school child to £56 for a post-primary pupil over the age of 15.

The department said it faced "major financial pressures in 2017/18 if it is to operate within its budget".

All Stormont departments are operating on a reduced budget due to the collapse of the power-sharing arrangements.

DUP MLA Peter Weir has blamed Sinn Fein for both the cuts to school uniform grants and the threat facing Sure Start staff. South Belfast Sure Start announced it had placed its 50 staff on protective notice on Monday, meaning they may not have a job after the end of the month.

Mr Weir said: "This uniform grant is being cut by unelected officials because Sinn Fein refuse to form an Executive.

"Instead of requesting meetings with civil servants [they] could be sitting around the Executive table with the other parties actually taking the decisions on these matters. The DUP wanted to form an Executive four months ago and again last Thursday. This has been blocked on each and every occasion by Sinn Fein."

However, Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey blamed "Tory austerity" and the DUP allying with the Conservatives for the cut.

"The DUP, in their support for Theresa May's Tory government, has handed them a blank cheque for their cuts and a Tory Brexit," he said. Mr Maskey said he has asked for meetings with the Education Authority and the Department.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said families have been let down by both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The Northern Ireland branch of the Parent Teacher Association UK has described the cut to the uniform grant as "ill-advised".

Jayne Thompson, its Northern Ireland programmes manager, said: "Parents should be consulted and encouraged to work in partnership with schools to better understand what impact these cuts will have, and instead work with them to reduce the financial burden."

Meanwhile, Julieann Brownlee, chair of the Friends of Regent House School group, said their first pre-loved uniform sale was inundated last month. They started selling second hand uniforms - including blazers for £7 - after hearing a parent say they could not afford to send their child to secondary school. Julieann has two boys at the school and said their uniforms can cost £200/300 each.

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