Parents from disadvantaged families depending on school uniform grants this year have been struck a major blow this week as the Education Authority (EA) are intending to slash the money available by over 61%.
In 2016/17 £4.9m was given out to 98,000 pupils across the country. This year that budget has been reduced by £3m to just a meagre £1.9m.
The EA claim they were instructed by the Department of Education to implement the cuts, but with no Stormont Assembly and our politicians on “holiday” over the summer who will step in to fight for the poorest people across the country?
Speaking to the BBC the Department of Education claimed that the 2017/18 budget year is facing “major financial pressures”. It added:
“Consequently options to reduce spending across all programme areas are being explored, including the clothing allowance (uniform grants), extended schools and the entitlement framework.”
Clearly, we haven’t heard the last of these devastating budget cuts. What’s horrifying about this news isn’t just the fact that once again the poor are penalised but the fact that this particular budget cut is so staggering.
To slash it by over half with no warning less than a month before the deadline will pass for families to get their forms lodged begs the question as to why no one seemed to know it was coming.
Many families are totally dependent on uniform grants, free school meals, buss passes and other practical assistance packages. But this news won’t just cause financial stress and pressure but practical issues that schools across the country may not be able to deal with.
Every year we hear of cases where schools have been rigid in their uniform policies, punishing children for not having the right schoolwear, and in some cases penalising children with threadbare clothing.
The NI Direct website says schools should be mindful of reasons behind why children might have issues adhering to the uniform policy. It states:
“Schools should be considerate if a pupil does not keep to the uniform policy and try to find out why it is happening. If a family is having financial problems, the school should allow for this and give the parents time to buy the right items.
“Pupils should not be made to feel uncomfortable if parents cannot provide them with the right uniform.”
But is this likely to be the case? Regardless of the financial pressure on parents what will the psychological and emotional pressure be on children forced to go without while their peers are fully equipped.
According to a survey by the Health & Wellbeing Company school pupils in Northern Ireland are already “stressed out” more than we think.
The firm, which promotes a holistic approach to healthcare, found that 77% of the young people they surveyed said they felt “stressed” at various times in their daily life.
Figures also showed that of the school pupils questioned a staggering three-quarters (75%) were “stressed out” in school. Whilst 40% cited their homelife to be stressful.
Other times when their stress levels spiked included when they are with their friends (18%), when in the company of strangers (25%), at family events (18%) and when talking to their teacher (15%).
Add to this having to answer to their teachers, friends and peers why they’re still wearing last year’s uniform or have pieces of their uniform missing – we’re standing by and allowing excess stress to be piled upon them.
This latest budget cut will, quite simply, plunge disadvantaged Northern Ireland families further into debt and poverty – it certainly isn’t in the interests of the electorate.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks the DUP celebrated the sale of their Westminster MP votes to the Tories for a whopping £1bn set to be invested into Northern Ireland. Of that money, it was estimated that £100m would go to education and health and £100m to severe deprivation.
To get some context, £1bn is a million pound multiplied by one thousand, yet 98,000 pupils will go to school in the 2017/2018 school year potentially with missing uniform elements, old and worn clothing or simply none at all.
So, while our MLAs take off on holiday this summer on full pay and expenses whilst being unable to do most of their duties as the Stormont deadlock remains, parents across the country will be slashing their own paltry household budgets looking for enough money to send their children to school in pristine uniforms like their classmates.
Both the DUP and SF have professed in their policies to want to make education more accessible to everyone in Northern Ireland, however, their inability to put an Assembly together means that school uniforms won’t be the only thing to go.
Already commercial companies and voluntary organisations have been forced into closure due to Stormont budgets being on hold, no longer in existence, slashed and/or undecided. Morale across the country is at an all-time low and confidence in our political structure is waning.
As our MLAs tackle their partisan politics and refuse to compromise with each other our children are suffering – in more ways than one.
Government departments and civil servants are left behind picking up the pieces and making the difficult decisions as to which budgets will be cut whilst trying to hold the country together on a shoe string.
Where are our publicly elected representatives now?
Is this what we voted for?