Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

O'Dowd should rethink school plan

The concept of providing more money for schools in deprived areas is a sound one in theory. It is accepted that many children from such areas require more assistance at school than pupils from more affluent backgrounds. One in six pupils leaving primary school has below standard levels of numeracy and literacy and there is a strong correlation between underachievement and deprivation as measured by eligibility for free school meals.

That would seem to be a compelling case for more investment in those primary schools with a high proportion of children meeting the deprivation criteria.

But are the proposed funding changes envisaged by Education Minister John O'Dowd the right answer to the problem?

The proposals have gone out to public consultation and have received their fair share of criticism. An online petition by one parent opposing the funding changes – whose children go to schools in what would be regarded as an affluent part of Belfast – gathered 7,000 supporters in a fortnight.

It is easy to see why many are concerned. An estimated 670 of the province's 832 primary schools could lose money under the proposals, some perhaps up to £40,000. As one critic puts it, if investment is seen as a way of driving up standards, surely taking money away from a school will adversely affect the performance of pupils? Yet the minister will argue he has only a finite budget and that redistributing it is the fairest and most effective way of proceeding.

The danger of that approach is that while there may be some levelling in standards in the primary sector, it will come at a cost. More funding for schools in deprived areas may well improve pupil performance and that would be welcome. But at the other end of the scale, schools in more affluent areas may find standards slipping if they lose resources.

Instead of potentially creating a better average performance, Mr O'Dowd should re-examine his proposals, take on board some of the objections, and come up with a formula that will encourage all primary schools to aim for the highest possible level of education for all pupils.

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