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(UK) NI: School budget cuts harm special needs students

Apr 20, 2023, BBC News: NI school budgets: Father angry as cuts hit most disadvantaged pupils https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-65337189

The father of an autistic child has said he is very angry over the decision to scrap a schools fund that provided extra support to disadvantaged pupils.

Rory O'Connor said his son's life had been "transformed" by speech and language therapy (SLT) sessions, funded by the Extended Schools Programme.

The scheme enabled almost 500 schools to provide extras like counselling, SLT, breakfasts and after-school clubs.

But school principals have been told the fund is being axed from 30 June.

In a letter to schools, Stormont's Department of Education (DE) said it had to make "significant savings" in 2023-24 and the programme "is no longer available"…

"There should be a minister for education coming and defending the decision to cut this and unfortunately in our country, we don't have that."

Budget pressures have already led to DE funding being cut for schemes including holiday hunger payments, counselling for primary school children and free books for babies.

The Extended Schools scheme has been running since 2006 and more than £9m [$11M] was provided to about 500 schools in 2022/23.

The schools received sums of between £1,000 [$1,300] to about £33,000 [$41,000] in 2022/23, depending on their pupil numbers and needs….

But in its letter to head teachers, the department said the education budget was facing significant cuts.

"As with all other departments, the Department of Education is yet to receive its confirmed budget allocation," the letter said.

"However, the indicative budget allocation recently advised by the Northern Ireland Office is extremely challenging for education.

"The Extended Schools Programme has been supported in recent years with £5.8m [$7.2M] of funding from the [DUP/Conservative] confidence and supply agreement.

"This funding is no longer available and, due to the extent of budget pressures, it is not possible for this to be covered from the Department of Education's budget.

"Consequently, unless additional funding is allocated by the secretary of state, funding can only be provided for the Extended Schools Programme to the end of the academic year, June 2023."

The department said it was making about £2.2m [$2.8M] available so schools could continue to offer support paid for by the scheme until the end of the school year in June.

Its letter also said that DE recognised "how disappointing this is for everyone involved in the delivery of this long-standing programme, and for the young people and families who have benefitted from its support over many years".

'Most vulnerable'

There has been an angry reaction from trade unions to the end of the Extended Schools Programme.

The northern secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) Mark McTaggart said the decision would "directly impact on the most vulnerable children in our schools".

"It is time that politicians stopped playing with the lives of the most vulnerable young people in our society, got back to real politics and began to find the necessary funding to ensure that we can offer the world class education system everybody wants," he told BBC News NI.

In a statement, Justin McCamphill from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) said ending the scheme was yet another blow to our most vulnerable children and young people.

Meanwhile, Alan Law from the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa) union said the scheme was being wrecked and the valuable and important work destroyed.

"It is shameful that these decisions are being taken without anyone being accountable," he said.

Principal of Lisnagelvin Primary School in Londonderry, Colin Torrens, said the Extended Schools scheme had provided a range of vital services at his school….

"Unfortunately every funding cut that comes in affects the most vulnerable and it is very demoralising," he told BBC Radio Foyle.

He added: "While we have tried to shield parents and pupils from these cuts over the last ten years, we are now in a position where we can no longer do that."


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