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John O'Dowd's stop-gap funds plan 'sticking plaster'

By Clodagh Louise Rice

The Education Minister's announcement of contingency funds to tide schools over in the first year of massive reforms prove his plan is "now in tatters", it has been claimed.

John O'Dowd's promise that no school will lose out next year as his new funding policy takes effect has been blasted as a short-term "sticking plaster" solution by Stormont education committee members.

Plans by the Sinn Fein minister to allocate funding based on free school dinner numbers has provoked huge opposition.

MLAs heard yesterday that more than three-quarters (77%) of 15,000 submissions in a Department of Education public consultation were against the changes. While some schools with high rates of free meals would benefit, it has emerged that hundreds of others would have their funding cut – some by as much as £40,000.

But Department of Education finance director Trevor Connolly yesterday told Stormont's education committee the minister had said no school would lose out as a result of changes he has made in the next financial year.

But if news of the contingency fund was meant to reassure members, it only served to add to their scepticism.

Because the fund will only ensure no school loses out in the first year of the funding round, it has led to accusations of political expediency.

Committee chairman Mervyn Storey branded the new one-year fund a "financial sticking plaster for one year dressed up as policy".

"The fact that reassurances have come on the same day as the committee was informed of the comprehensive rejection of his plans highlights the U-turn the minister and his party have been forced to undertake. The proposals as originally conceived are now in tatters," he said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kinahan described yesterday's announcement as having the hallmarks of a short-term fix.

"There is no surprise about this rejection, as the plans would have been robbing Peter to pay Paul and would have left many more schools worse off financially," he said.

"It seems a battle has been won, but the war over the funding formula has still to be fought."

However, Pat Sheehan supported his Sinn Fein colleague's proposal.

He said: "This is a good news story – there is more funding going into schools. There aren't going to be any losers."

The committee has to give its views on the consultation to the minister by next Wednesday.

Free school meals measure 'comes up short' 

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