THE catastrophic impact of cuts to the Education sector has been brought home during a conference in North Belfast.

The conference examining the 'immediate and long-term impacts of cuts on North Belfast’s education sector’ took place at Clifton House. It looked at the current state of education in North Belfast, how schools are dealing with unprecedented levels of poverty and the terrifying predictions that recent cuts will have on an education system already under pressure.

Principals representing the primary and post primary sectors of North Belfast provided their insights into what the reality is for schools in what remains one of the most deprived parts of the North and which is struggling under the additional pressure created by the cost of living crisis.

Ashleigh Galway, Principal of Currie Primary School, said: “Arriving at a school building for the first time our youngest children coming on their first day of school are now met with buildings that have had all maintenance worked stalled for years.

"Paint flaking on school railings, ours included, toilets closed, playgrounds with old and broken equipment, broken windows boarded up rather than replaced, no painting or refurbishment work completed and generally sad looking places for our next generation to learn."

Ashleigh then focused on just one of her concerns, that of mental health.

“Counselling support has been impacted significantly with the removal of Happy Healthy Minds," she added. "Within our own 21 North Belfast primary schools we are facing unprecedented need for this support with all schools reporting a waiting list for counselling regardless of context or the colour of uniform or school railings.

"Basic needs have become the business of schools, as well as teaching, in 2024."

Speaking on behalf of the post-primary schools in North Belfast, Martin Moreland, Principal of Mercy College, spoke passionately about how the cuts are negatively impacting on families and communities as well young people.

"We cannot underestimate the dire impact that underfunding an education system can have not least on the young people currently in it, but their families, school communities and society, as a whole," he explained.

"Schools need to provide a safe, warm environment with basic needs met, otherwise learning doesn’t take place. Many schools are currently struggling to meet this due to years and years of underinvestment.

"More and more young people are now living in poverty, coming to school with lack of food, lack of clothing and lack of personal hygiene. Our schools are now providing much more care than ever before, on top of mental health issues and pastoral care.

"First and foremost, we are educationalists, so, when we are the parent, counsellor, psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, friend, that is time not being spent on the formal curriculum."

Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick from Ulster University and Professor Noel Purdy, co-author of The Fair Start Report and contributor to The Consequences of the Cuts report also addressed the conference.

Hosting the event, Sir Ronnie Weatherup, President of Belfast Charitable Society thanked all the contributors to the discussion.

“Combatting child poverty and improving the lives of Belfast’s poor children has been, and remains to be, an important aspect of the work of Belfast Charitable Society," he added. "We really wanted to use the event today to raise awareness of the devastating impact cuts to education are having, particularly in deprived areas like North Belfast.

"We will continue to look at this important issue to see what we, as a charity, can do to help alleviate some of the pressures schools face. We will continue to use our funds where possible to support some of the most basic needs, but clearly more needs to be done.

"We look forward to continuing the conversation with educators and the local community to see what we can and should do to help.”