63 Northern Ireland schools lose funds for after hours clubs, but cuts not to blame insists department
The Department of Education has denied claims that it cut funding for vital school breakfast and afternoon homework clubs because of a £20m budget gap.
Yesterday, 63 schools were told that they were no longer included in the £9.1m scheme - as first reported by the Belfast Telegraph a month ago.
Head teachers of the affected schools received letters outlining that they were to lose funding under the department's Extending Schools (ES) scheme this financial year. The department said this was not due to budget constraints, but because it was using different criteria to determine which schools are included in the scheme.
"The total funding provided for Extended Schools was £9.1m in 2017/18 and is exactly the same in 2018/19," said a departmental spokesperson.
"There have also been no changes in how schools qualify for Extended Schools funding, rather, NISRA (the NI Statistics and Research Agency) has updated the Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure (NIMDM) which is one of the key criteria in deciding which schools are to benefit from the Extended Schools programme."
However, there were warnings that it would be the most deprived pupils across the province who would be hit hardest.
Former teacher and Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton said she believed the NIMDM was a "convenient excuse" for the department, which she claimed is attempting to plug a £20m budget shortfall.
"I have spoken to a number of parents in recent days who are understandably angry at the decision to withdraw this key provision from so many local schools," she said.
"They are rightly asking the question that if the money could be found to continue the scheme for 2017/18, even after the new criteria is in place, why can't it be found again for the next school year?
"Of course, I suspect the real reason is because of the chaos in our local public finances.
"Last month I revealed that the Education Authority is believed to have overspent its budget by around £20m so I suspect this decision has simply been taken on what saves the biggest amount of money over the shortest period of time, rather than actually considering what is best for our local young people."
Controlled Schools' Support Council (CSSC) chief executive Barry Mulholland said it would be the most disadvantaged pupils who would be worst affected.
"The difference it makes to the children who benefit is significant," he said.
"Breakfast clubs provide children with a nutritious start to the day, supporting both children's learning and parents. Enabling children to succeed at school and achieve their potential is fundamental.
"Homework clubs support pupils who may not have the opportunity to complete homework at home, and so closing homework clubs will affect the children who need them the most."
Working parents who rely on the ES scheme now also face the difficult task of finding alternative childcare at an affordable cost for the new school term in September, said Aoife Hamilton of Employers For Childcare.
"This news will come as a shock for the parents and schools involved," she said.
"For many parents here, wraparound services such as breakfast and afterschool clubs are essential in allowing them to combine their work commitments with their parenting responsibilities."