Northern Ireland

Maghaberry primary school principal says parents donating toilet roll

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Media captionSchool principal Graham Gault criticises local politicians for playing "pathetic games"

Parents are "donating toilet roll" to a primary school due to budget cuts, a committee of MPs has heard.

Maghaberry Primary School principal Graham Gault was speaking at a Northern Ireland Affairs committee hearing into education funding.

Politicians were playing "pathetic games" while pupils needed help, the County Antrim school's principal said.

Dr Gault was one of four local principals giving evidence to the committee in Westminster on Wednesday.

He told MPs that although Maghaberry was a popular and sustainable school, it would have a six-figure budget deficit by the end of the financial year.

"I've 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.

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"I actually have parents - and this isn't a joke - who are donating toilet roll to my school.

"It feels Victorian - it's a disgrace."

Later, in response to a question from North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon on the impact of the lack of a functioning assembly, Dr Gault launched a stinging attack on local politicians.

"I lament when I see the children in my school and look at the level of need, that the level of political discourse that I look at back home is like something I wouldn't accept in my playground," he said.

"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.

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

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Dr Gault was speaking alongside Deirdre Gillespie of St Mary's Grammar School in Magherafelt, Nigel Frith of Drumragh Integrated College in Omagh and Jo McColgan of Ashfield Boys' School in east Belfast.

Mr Frith told the committee that the mental health of both teachers and pupils was being affected by financial pressures and a lack of resources.

"There is an epidemic of mental health problems in our schools, which is nowhere near being addressed effectively," he said.

'Unsustainable system'

"My central role as a principal has become trying to scan across the school in a daily basis to see who's ok and who's not ok and to try and get to the ones who are not ok before they fall."

DUP MP Jim Shannon said that, as a school governor, he knew there were enormous pressures in meeting special educational needs (SEN) and mental health needs.

Image caption "There is an epidemic of mental health problems in our schools" - Nigel Firth, Drumragh Integrated College principal

In response, Ms Gillespie said her school had a 110% increase in the number of pupils with SEN over the past five years, while all of the principals said they were seeing increasing numbers of pupils with SEN.

Ms Gillespie also said there were too many schools in Northern Ireland and too little reform.

"What we have is a fragmented system of education in Northern Ireland, which is far too costly," she said.

"We've got five competing sectors, we've got duplication across the sectors - we've got lack of co-operation and lack of co-ordination, and it's leading to this pressure pot of an unsustainable system.

"We have far too many schools in Northern Ireland, and we're not able to release the money that we need for viable schools because we haven't tackled the elephant in the room."

The committee is due to hear more oral evidence over the coming months, but while they will eventually produce recommendations they cannot compel any additional funding.

The Education Authority had previously told the committee that schools in Northern Ireland were set to overspend their budgets by about £33m in 2018/19.

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