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If we value children and our future, we need to protect the education that underpins it

By Gillian Dunlop

Northern Ireland's education system is at breaking point - make no mistake. For some time now we have been warning against the tightening fist of fiscal austerity in our schools.

In what can only be described as egregiously cynical, policy-makers have allowed our incredibly dedicated and driven body of vocational staff to make up the slack, regardless of the impact on their health and pocket.

However, the simple truth is, there is no more slack. Now it's personal - personal to every parent with a child in a Northern Ireland school.

Until now, most of the cuts have been felt by the most vulnerable. Have the decision makers - the politicians, the employers, the bean counters - no conscience?

Children deserve an education based on need, not budget, yet we have had to stand by and watch children, some of our most vulnerable, lose out.

Children with special needs have lost their classroom assistants. We have had to watch as pupils struggle to stay in school because the funding isn't there to have their needs properly assessed in the first place. Surely a society is judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable.

We have had to watch too as teachers lose out on continued professional development which will enable them to ensure our children are taught the most up to date skills to put them at the forefront of the job market when their turn comes.

We have had to watch, helpless, as children crying out for help to cope with mental health issues slide ever deeper into that black hole because the mental health services supporting our schools are shrinking.

Yet if our most vulnerable can't be supported in class, other children too lose out as teachers struggle to cope - no-one's a winner.

We have had to watch class sizes get bigger as resources get tighter, text books get older, after school activities become fewer and opportunities for our children shrink faster.

I would argue that no school can deliver the same level of resources to the present cohort of children compared to 20 years ago.

In trying to deliver an education appropriate to needs, many schools have racked up deficits - some with deficits over £1m. Those deficits have been accrued simply to stay afloat.

The situation has reached critical mass.

Children are not having their basic human rights to education met; it's as fundamental as that. Going forward, parents need have no doubt that their child will be affected, if they aren't already. Those bearing the brunt of these cuts are no longer only the vulnerable minority of children with additional needs.

If we value our children and our future, we must protect the education system which underpins it and which has been the envy of other countries.

Our children deserve at least the opportunities we enjoyed.

Don't let them be the first generation to be playing educational catch-up with their parents.

Gillian Dunlop is principal of Largymore Primary School, Lisburn

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