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Mum takes on minister over plan that will hit funding at child's school

By Anna Maguire

One mother has vowed to take on the Education Minister over proposed changes to school funding – which critics describe as flawed and divisive.

Parents are mobilising against the changes with more than 7,000 people signing an online petition opposing the changes just under a fortnight after it was launched by a concerned mother-of-two.

Christine Mooney started the initiative to highlight the controversial proposals, which are the subject of a public consultation which is due to end today.

Yesterday she handed the petition over to the Assembly's education committee, after the minister said he did not have time to meet her.

The south Belfast mother described an online consultation form for members of the public to submit their views on the proposed changes as lengthy and difficult for the average parent to understand.

Ms Mooney simplified the proposals into 193 words for parents on her online site.

Educationalists and Government representatives often concede to not understanding aspects of the common funding formula, a notoriously complicated system which determines how much money a school is allocated every year.

Proposed changes to that system are contained in a lengthy report, which is heavy on detail and jargon.

As a result, Ms Mooney said the vast majority of parents were unaware of the proposals and, particularly, their implications for Northern Ireland's schools.

A total of 670 of 832 primary schools could lose money for teachers, classroom assistants and resources from 2014-15 if the minister approves the plans.

Some schools could lose more than £40,000 from their funding every year – more than a teacher's salary.

Comments left on the web petition indicate the emerging strength of feeling among parents, a powerful lobby group not widely heard from as yet.

"If education promotes equality for all, why are the proposed changes taking away from the majority of children to further top up the budgets of schools in selected areas?" one parent said.

"If more funding means better outcomes, then less funding means worse outcomes. This proposal is deeply flawed and unfair," Paul G said.

"Don't want my child to be a second-class citizen!" Lucy R added simply.

Ms Mooney's five-year-old daughter attends Stranmillis PS, which is set to lose around £12,000 under the new arrangements.

"When you look at the postcodes of the people who have signed, they are from right across Northern Ireland," she said.

"There has been no study or exercise to see how schools losing out will be impacted. Without that, the consultation is incomplete and flawed. There is also no evidence that extra funding will tackle social deprivation."

The proposed changes, if implemented, would shift the focus of schools' funding in favour of schools with high levels of special deprivation.

Schools with around 50% or more pupils receiving free school meals – a measure of social deprivation – would get significantly more money every year, while schools in more affluent areas would lose out.

Generation will be affected, claims principal

Proposals to slash funding for thousands of pupils with literacy, numeracy and undiagnosed behavioural issues could harm the prospects of a generation, a principal has warned.

Michael Keenan, principal of St Anne's Primary School in Belfast, said a proposal to remove annual funding for children with additional educational needs will have a detrimental impact on the future of thousands of children.

The proposal is part of a wider plan to change the way all Northern Ireland's schools are funded. Every year, more than 800 primary schools receive thousands of pounds through the Warnock Factor.

This was based on the 1978 Warnock Report, which highlighted the need to fund programmes for primary school children with additional educational needs. Those needs range from literacy and numeracy issues to children with autism or attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who are awaiting an official 'statement' of their special education needs.

Funding for statemented pupils will be protected under the controversial funding plans, but Mr Keenan has pointed out that pupils can wait for up to 18 months before they are statemented.

St Anne's Primary School received just under £37,000 in 2013-14 for its pupils who struggle with additional educational needs. Around 18% (just over 150 pupils) of the south Belfast's school's 860 pupils have additional educational needs.

In schools with high numbers of pupils receiving free school meals, funding cuts for additional educational needs will be largely recouped through significant increases in funding to tackle pupils' social deprivation issues. But in schools with fewer pupils receiving less free school meals – which measures levels of social deprivation – most of that money will be lost.

St Anne's Primary School – which has 15% of pupils on free school meals – could lose around £24,000 of funding.

Mr Keenan said: "This funding is all about trying to provide additional help, especially in the early years.

"The idea is to try and get intervention as soon as possible so children can progress. If we address the issues early on, we do not have to address it later on."

What changes are proposed, and why the controversy?

Q What are these changes to the way schools are funded all about?

A The proposals are contained in a 160-page report commissioned by Education Minister John O'Dowd (below) last year. The report assesses the effectiveness of the current system for deciding how much money every school in Northern Ireland receives annually and how it should be changed. The review was led by Sir Robert Salisbury.

Q What is going to change?

A Under the new system, schools with high levels of children from socially deprived backgrounds will receive much more funding. But that means schools in more affluent areas will lose thousands of pounds in funding through the funding re-allocation.

Q How does a school qualify for extra funds?

A The percentage of pupils receiving free school meals should continue to be used to measure a school's social deprivation levels, according to the report. But critics say that measure is controversial because it does not take account of the working poor, where children do not qualify for free meals, but come from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the report recommends consideration of an alternative measure of social deprivation.

Q Who else benefits?

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

Q Why are the plans so controversial?

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

Q How will that happen?

A The schools due to fare worst under the plans have warned the funding cuts will mean losing teachers, classrooms assistants and initiatives for pupils with additional educational needs.

Q Aren't "pupils with additional educational needs" the children who should be benefiting from changes?

A The removal of this funding is controversial. Schools receive thousands of pounds every year to help pupils with extra needs, such as problems with literacy and numeracy, or behavioural issues. Under the proposals, that funding will be cut and re-allocated where schools have high levels of pupils from socially deprived backgrounds, but largely lost in schools in affluent areas.

Q Will anyone else suffer?

A The removal of extra funding for small schools is also controversial in rural communities. The report calls for a policy and funding for "strategically important small schools".

'We'll lose £36k for additional needs children'

St Anne's Primary School, south Belfast

St Anne's has two full-time teachers who focus on children's literacy skills, and another helping children with numeracy.

But the school will lose more than £36,000 in funding specifically for additional educational needs if plans to change the way schools are funded are approved by the Education Minister. Only a small percentage of that will be recouped by St Anne's Primary.

Principal Michael Keenan said: "£36,000 would just about cover one numeracy or literacy teacher.

"We have 860 pupils in the school who, at different stages and times, need help in different ways. We feel the most appropriate way to do it is to have the support systems in place that we have. Those literacy and numeracy teachers offer one-to-one tuition for children who need it.

"Sometimes a teacher will come into the classroom to help a child who is waiting for a statement. It depends on the child.

"It would also mean that long term we would not have provision that we have at the minute.

"That would include literacy and numeracy teachers. So it means children who need the help would not have it."

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