The Department of Education has steadfastly refused to discuss how it administers a £10m Social Deprivation Fund which allegedly sees principals in deprived areas having more money than they can spend.
On June 23, the News Letter published claims from one principal that while many schools are under pressure due to cutbacks, others with high levels of free school meals have more money than they can spend, due to grants from Education Minister John O’Dowd’s diversion of £10m to a social deprivation fund for such schools.
The principal in question, Paula Whyte of Bushvalley Primary in Ballymoney, said Mr O’Dowd had cut the Aggregated Schools Budget (ASB), the total given to education boards for schools, by 6pc, and the Age Weighted Cash Values (AWCV), which calculates funding based on children’s ages, by 8pc.
But when the News Letter published the figures on June 23, the Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) contacted us to say that in fact ASB had risen by 1.35pc while AWCV had only fallen slightly by 0.74pc.
DENI added: “For your background information, enrolment at the [principal’s] school has fallen this year which has meant reduced funding to the school.”
The News Letter understands Ms Whyte had quoted figures from a DENI letter sent out in December.
The News Letter returned to DENI with a number of questions, including:
• How much money was diverted to the Social Deprivation Fund each year since it was created?
• How much remained unspent at the end of each year?
• What guidelines are given on how schools should spend social deprivation grants?
• Why were the cuts DENI is now quoting different to those it issued in December?
• Please specify details of claims that pupil numbers at Ms Whyte’s school have dropped?
The News Letter put the questions daily to DENI from June 23.
Eight days later, on July 1, DENI said it would not be addressing the questions.
James Wright, of the union Unite, which backed principal Whyte, pointed to the comment from DENI relating to enrolment figures at Bushvalley, and said: “They could not contradict the facts that we raised, but in fact Primary 1 enrolment last year was 18 and this year it is 19 pupils.”
Unionists yesterday expressed concern at DENI’s refusal to discuss whether schools in deprived areas have more cash than they can spend.
DUP education spokesman Peter Weir said: “There is a need for additional support for some schools but it needs to be done transparently. That is why it is so disappointing that when reasonable questions are posed by the News Letter, such queries are met with obfuscation”.
UUP MLA Robin Swann, chair of the Assembly’s employment and learning committee, said DENI “needs to account for the reasons why it is refusing to answer what are clearly perfectly reasonable questions from the News Letter. Mainstream school budgets have been decimated yet the education department is trying to draw a veil of secrecy over its Social Deprivation Fund and the £10m contained within it.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said the experience of Bushvalley Primary School typifies “the deliberate and ideologically driven discriminatory approach of O’Dowd”. He added: “I commend the Bushvalley principal for standing up and speaking out. Let all who are suffering the same discrimination be heard to speak up and strengthen her hand.”
Ulster Teachers Union General Secretary Avril Hall-Callaghan strongly defended the need for DENI Social Deprivation Fund - but said schools are given no guidelines by DENI on how they should spend the money.
“In terms of how the Social Deprivation Fund is spent there are no guidelines but there is accountability,” she said. “Schools must be able to produce a child’s literacy and numeracy scores to the Education and Training Inspectorate.
“There is also a strong correlation between children receiving Free School Meals and those with special needs and those being supported by social services, all of which impacts funding. I believe people often don’t realise the level of poverty in which many children are living - we read statistics but arent aware of the sheer grinding struggle it can be for some families. I would be surprised if any teacher would not be able to spend any extra funding they received.”