Belfast Telegraph

Begging for school funding 'humiliating', says Northern Ireland principal

By Mark Bain

A primary school principal who spoke out over the education cash crisis has said it was "humiliating" to be seen begging for help.

And principal of Maghaberry Primary School Dr Graham Gault admitted he was afraid he was damaging his reputation when he addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last Wednesday on the deepening funding concerns facing education.

"In many respects it was humiliating, crying for help", he said, after revealing how parents have been donating toilet roll, tissues and soap to his cash-strapped school.

"It's been traumatic. I never wanted to be the story. The future of all our children is the story. This is not a position I wanted to find myself in, but the truth is the crisis is here, no matter where you look."

In detailing the pressure his own school is facing, Dr Gault - secretary of the Strategic Principals' Forum, which covers 400 schools and 92,000 pupils - said the one thing giving him the strength to speak out was the level of trust his own school community had in him.

"The parents and the governors at Maghaberry have been very generous and understanding. Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm normally a quiet individual, so I have found the experience scary. I was stunned by the reaction. It has been one of solidarity." he said.

"I wondered if I was doing the right thing: would this damage me professionally, telling the truth of the situation? But I felt I had to lay it all on the line for the sake of the children."

Dr Gault, a father of two daughters, said he was grateful for the opportunity to address the NI Affairs Committee but admitted the week has been a difficult one for him personally.

"In many ways it was humiliating on a personal level. People don't want to admit that they're accepting handouts. But I'm just relieved I wasn't that lone voice in the wilderness I feared I might be.

"I thought hard about what to say," he said. "I didn't want to damage myself professionally. All these things go through your mind.

"But I have been heartened by the response of the media, the response of parents and the response of people working with me in primary education.

"What has come across is that there's a real despondency at the political inactivity. It's an extremely stressful situation for staff to have to cope with.

"I have met with MLAs at my school and individually I know they care, but there's a collective responsibility, and as long as this stalemate continues, they are neglecting them. I would have been failing the children too if I hadn't spoken up when given the opportunity.

"The parents at Maghaberry - and I'm one of them, as my youngest is a pupil - know I love each child that comes through this school dearly and I want the best for them. I feel I have a moral obligation to give each child what they need and I will continue to do so as the budget for the school allows. But I can't turn off the heat."

While Dr Gault said the response from the public has been exceptional and the comments from other principals have been supportive, he said there has been no change as far as our politicians are concerned.

"The situation is the same now as it was a week ago," he said. "There has been no movement. I can only hope that what I have said will filter through in the longer term, that people will have listened and that people want to build a better future for all our children."

Dr Gault said while he works on a budget of £2,157.84p for each child at his school, that figure more than doubles when a pupil reaches Year 13.

"There are big questions over the distribution of money in the education system," he said. "By Year 13 a child is worth £4,481.40p to a school. Why is a child at my school worth any less? There has to be parity.

"The power is now with the voters in our community. I have given them the facts.

"Primary schools are surviving on the generosity of parents, but society can make change happen.

"I'd urge everyone, for the sake of our children, to contact their MLAs, contact the parties they vote for in each election and let them know how strong the depth of feeling is."

Belfast Telegraph

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