Pounds 150 cash offer to enrol a child

12th June 2009 at 01:00
But school claims it is merely 'supporting' prospective parents living in deprived area

A struggling secondary school in Belfast is offering parents Pounds 150 to enroll their children as part of a last-ditch measure to counter falling pupil numbers.

St Gemma's High School, in a deprived area in the north of the city, has been taking in less than 40 per cent of its capacity for the past four years.

The school says the lump sum offer - believed to be unprecedented - is designed to "empower" parents. They have been advised to spend it on school equipment or extra-curricular activities and lessons, but a letter to parents makes it clear that they are free to spend the money as they like.

Pupil numbers in Northern Ireland have been falling dramatically, posing the threat of closure and redundancies.

"Grammar schools have largely avoided problems by widening their intake to include pupils who achieved lower grades in the 11-plus transfer test who would traditionally have attended non-selective schools. As a result, non-selective secondary schools, such as St Gemma's, have born the brunt of the problem.

The award scheme is funded by Belfast charity the Flax Trust, which gives financial support to a number of schools in the city. However, there is concern about its impact on neighbouring schools.

"It creates a marketplace environment which isn't healthy," said Dominic Bradley, SDLP education spokesman. "We need an agreed system of (primary to secondary) transfer in the context of area-based planning, which will ensure that schools don't have to resort to this type of commercialism in order to obtain their quota of pupils."

St Gemma's principal Cecilia McCloskey denied that the cash sum was intended to attract parents to the school.

"There are all kinds of ways that schools choose to support parents," she said. "Some let out their car park, some provide free transport, but because of the specific economics of the parents that we have, this is what we have decided."

The school is in an area of long-term unemployment that has been designated a health action zone and neighbourhood renewal area.

Mrs McCloskey said that giving parents a cash payment was part of a long-term vision for the whole area.

"We've had bombs, we've had people shot dead, we've had all that conflict ... and the deprivation indicators are among the highest in Europe," she said.

"You can talk loosely about this idea of parents being part of the community of your school, but in essence, we mean it very seriously."

Brendan Harron, senior official for the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, applauded the school's "creative marketing", saying that "Sir Alan Sugar might want to take a look at whoever came up with that idea". He added that St Gemma's predicament was symptomatic of the wider problems facing non-selective secondaries.

"Post-primary, non-selective schools are taking the whole hit (of the declining population) while the grammar schools continue to fill up with every grade," he said.

Schools adjudicator Alan Parker said: "Schools do have the power to give financial support to parents on the basis of financial hardship or need, but I've not heard of it being done on a blanket basis as a sort of recruitment device."

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