School funding was the hot topic of Question Time to the Minister of Education, John O’Dowd (an issue that has already provoked strong debate in the Chamber). Proposed changes to the common funding formula proved particularly contentious. The public consultation period for changes to the Common Funding Scheme ended on 25 October 2013. The proposals would see a change to the common funding formula that aims to tackle the link between social deprivation and educational outcome by providing greater funds to schools that are deemed to have the highest number of socially disadvantaged pupils.
The problem for many MLAs is that this takes money away from schools that are already running on tight budgets. The Minister reiterated that the proposals illustrate his commitment to the Programme for Government’s aim to tackle inequality and social disadvantage. He then argued that he is not taking money from one school and giving it to another because all funding comes from the Department’s central aggregated schools budget of £1.1 billion and the budget for a school in any particular year is not confirmed until his Department does so in accordance with the common funding scheme.
There is also concern over how socially deprived children are identified – the main indicator currently used is by focussing on those schools with the highest concentration of pupils that receive free school meals. Peter Weir pressed the Minister on what alternative indicators have been considered in light of Sir Robert Salisbury’s independent review of the common funding formula. The Minister countered that “free school meal entitlement is the only reliable measure we have been able to identify” and that “statistical analysis shows a strong correlation between the entitlement to free school meals and the multiple deprivation measure”. He also maintained that he is open to hearing suggestions for alternative indicators but that, as yet, no party has come forward with a similarly accurate alternative.
Mr O’Dowd revealed his delight at the success of the public consultation with 14,000 responses received, 3,000 of these from young people. The Minister will take his time to consider all the contributions “before announcing how the final changes to the formula will be incorporated”.