Education news

Parents donating toilet roll and soap to school, Moira principal tells Westminster

"This isn't a joke, I actually have parents who are donating toilet roll to my school. It's a disgrace," Graham Gault, head of Maghaberry Primary School in Moira, Co Armagh, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster today
Rebecca Black, Press Association

A primary school principal has urged Northern Ireland's politicians to "set aside petty squabbles" and "stand up for children".

Graham Gault, head of Maghaberry Primary School in Moira, Co Armagh, said there is "no more time for our politicians to play pathetic games".

Mr Gault was one of four school principals who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster on Wednesday.

The committee is carrying out an inquiry into education funding in Northern Ireland.

Committee chairman Andrew Murrison said in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive the committee was probing matters that would normally be devolved.

The powersharing government at Stormont has been collapsed since January 2017 following a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The evidence session came weeks after Northern Ireland's Auditor General warned that the region's education system is "coming close to a financial tipping point".

Kieran Donnelly said the Department of Education and the Education Authority need to act "as a matter of urgency". His report found that since the 2012/13 financial year, the number of schools in deficit has increased from 197 to 315. 

Mr Gault said the "level of political discourse" in Northern Ireland is "something I wouldn't accept in my playground".

"My children beg for a field of politics that is based around integrity, honesty and authenticity and looks at their needs rather than the needs of party politics and petty squabbles," he told the committee.

"I would say to politicians, we have one chance for the children in my school, it is not an industry where we can fix a problem in five years time. My children have one goal, and my politicians are playing pathetic games, and I say to them, now is the time to be brave, to stand up and make some difficult decisions. Step up for our children.

"I don't mind what issues people are arguing about, but the past is not relevant to the children in my school who are dealing with complex learning needs and facing a system now which is almost Victorian in terms of the level of financial provision.

"There is no more time for our politicians to play pathetic games, my children need their help right now."

Mr Gault said his school performs well in all of the six sustainable school priorities, apart from its financial position.

He said its deficit at the end of this financial year will be around £130,000.

"My school isn't financially sustainable and I have actually found myself in the humiliating position of begging my parents to support the wellbeing of their children by providing Pritt Stick, reading books, tissues and soap," he said.

"This isn't a joke, I actually have parents who are donating toilet roll to my school. It's a disgrace".

Jo McColgan, principal of Ashfield Boys' High School in east Belfast, said the educational outcomes at his school have improved significantly, but the financial position has worsened.

"We have gone from a £4,000 surplus to a minus £136,000 deficit," he said.

Mr McColgan argued there are other ways savings could be made, querying the central procurement system that controlled schools must go through.

He said he could source ink cartridges for £6,000 less outside the system.

Deirdre Gillespie, principal of St Mary's Grammar in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, said there are no more cuts the school can make, other than to staff.

"We need a transformation of the system which will release money back into the system to schools," she said.

Nigel Frith, principal of Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh, Co Tyrone, said he does not want the "old Stormont" back.

"I want a new Stormont with a new will and a new vision to work together in the ways that they didn't," he told the committee.

"I didn't see a power-sharing executive, I saw a power-grabbing executive, and I'm sorry if I have offended anyone listening, but I think that is the reality.

"Now if they can't agree to power-sharing properly, I would rather that the civil servants at the head of our government departments were given greater powers to make decisions for themselves and I daresay without any political bias.

"I don't think what we had before the executive collapsed was anywhere near good enough."

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