A debate on the link between low income and educational underachievement is being used as a “smokescreen” to ensure Catholic schools benefit financially, it has been claimed.
According to education committee chairman Mervyn Storey, the number of children claiming free school meals should not be used as the main indicator of assessing educational underachievement, particularly as those in Protestant schools have historically been less likely to avail of the entitlement.
Following a debate on the issue in the Assembly yesterday, the DUP MLA said educational underachievement had to be addressed “in a way that is fair and equitable”.
The number of free meal children in a school generates additional funding beyond the cost of the food itself.
Mr Storey said: “I have serious reservations that today’s debate on free school meals was a smokescreen for what the real intent of the minister [John O’Dowd] and his party is, and that is doing a raid on the controlled sector finances to the benefit of the maintained sector. There will always be exceptions to the rule but I believe the net loss will be to the controlled sector and the net gain will be to the maintained sector.”
Commenting on the possibility that a perceived stigma affects take-up rates, Mr Storey told the News Letter: “More work needs to be done on improving anonymity for those availing of free meals.”
Challenging the assertion of a direct link between the entitlement and underachievement, Jonathan Craig of the DUP has highlighted education department figures which show that 10 of the bottom 20 performing schools have a relatively low percentage of pupils having free meals.
Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard has claimed there is a direct link between free school meals and an increase in educational attainment.
Welcome for end of key stage tests
Assessments tracking the educational progress of school pupils are to undergo significant changes after complaints from teachers.
The traditional ‘key stage’ assessment system awards a numbered grade, and provides a description, of the progress of children aged eight to 14. However, a survey carried out by the General Teaching Council revealed that only seven per cent of teachers thought the grade awarded was accurate.
In response to the survey, and other negative feedback, the education minister has signalled his intention to make changes.
John O’Dowd said he believed the new arrangements would “reduce the pressure on teachers and schools whilst maintaining the primary purpose of the levels of progression, to assist teaching and learning”.