Parents plug school funding gap as Stormont impasse hits two years

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By Michael McHugh

Parents are buying about £60 worth of supplies per school child every month to plug an education funding gap following the collapse of Stormont powersharing, a principal said.

Hard-pressed families have struggled to make extra "voluntary" contributions for items like stationery, as head teachers address an official spending squeeze, public meetings with parents have shown.

It is only one element of the public services feeling the effect after years with no ministers to take decisions.

Scores of pubs have closed due to unreformed red tape and taxation while major road building projects have been delayed.

Sinn Fein's late Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness stepped aside two years ago on Wednesday in protest at his former powersharing partner the DUP's handling of a botched green energy scheme.

The impasse has created a decision-making logjam.

Geri Cameron, president of the National Association of Head Teachers in Northern Ireland, said: "It is totally unsatisfactory, parents have had a very strong voice in telling us that it is not sustainable."

The budget for schools has reduced by about 10% in real terms over the past five years.

The union leader added: "Schools are now at crisis point."

Charlene Brooks, chief executive of Parenting NI, a family support organisation, said families were expected to buy extra items like stationery and contribute to the cost of particular lessons.

"Parents have made it very clear that this has had an additional financial and emotional strain.

"They talk about a voluntary contribution but if one parent does not make it does that mean that their child is left out of a lesson and is more vulnerable to being picked on?

"Does that mean that that child stands out from the group?

"There appear to be much greater expectations on parents to pay towards things that they would not have to in the past."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said 91% of the total budget for day-to-day running costs went towards funding schools and pupils.

She added: "However, the department fully acknowledges the financial challenges facing schools and continues to make the case each year for additional funding, based on an analysis of the financial pressures facing the sector.

"That said, we do not determine what the final outcome will be each year, as the education pressures are considered alongside other competing pressures across all departments.

"Overall budget allocations to departments must be funded from available resources and are decided by ministers.

"To benefit pupils, all grant aided schools are entitled to request or invite voluntary contributions from parents."

Endless rounds of political talks have failed to restore the Stormont institutions.

An official probe into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and its threatened massive overspending is due to report later this year.

The DUP wants to re-enter Government immediately but refuses to meet a republican demand for official protection for the Irish language.

The unionist party's stance against abortion and same sex marriage has rankled with its former partner in Government.

Meanwhile, tourism chiefs are awaiting a long-overdue reform to cut red tape, and the tax burden on pubs contributed to one closing every four days last year, Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said.

He added: "It is unsustainable, the rates system no longer works."

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has been unwilling to introduce full Direct Rule from Westminster, but has passed a budget to keep public services running and intervened in piecemeal fashion in policing and addressing the legacy of the conflict.

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