Education Minister John O’Dowd puts forward the case for protecting the education budget. This approach, in his view, is the best way to keep reducing social disadvantage and ensure that the system contributes to Northern Ireland’s economy and society.
There is no doubt that we are currently facing difficult financial times across the entire public sector. Despite exercising prudent budget management, the education department continues to deal with very real challenges and for this reason its budget needs to be afforded protection.
Education is the cornerstone of any society, impacting on health, justice and the economy. The future stability of our society and the success of our economy depends on there being a high quality education system that can compete with the best internationally. Our young people have a right to the best education available to enable them to reach their full potential, a right not only enshrined in our own legislation, but in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Executive has prioritised early intervention as the best means of addressing wider economic, health and societal problems. I have made a significant investment in supporting our young people, especially those who are vulnerable or at risk of exclusion, to understand the benefit of a good education. This strategy is beginning to pay off in that we are now starting to see improvements in educational outcomes that will have a long-term positive impact across all of the Executive’s priorities and, in turn, on society as whole.
Since I came into office, there has been a steady increase in the number of young people, including those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, leaving school with at least five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
I expect this number to further increase as the benefit is felt of initiatives such as the Delivering Social Change Literacy and Numeracy project, which has funded more than 165 additional teachers in 140 post-primary schools in areas of high social need.
As Minister for Education, it is my role to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to reach their full potential. This includes children with special educational needs (SEN) who are being catered for by both our special and mainstream schools as well as through the education and library boards’ services like educational psychologists.
Some children are presenting with increasingly complex needs, inevitably requiring greater support and funding. In order to sustain the improvements that we have seen in educational outcomes for pupils with SEN, it is essential that the resources invested in supporting these children are protected. Any cuts to existing resources would not only undermine these improvements but would seriously hamper the department’s aim of raising standards for all and tackling the barriers to learning that put the most vulnerable children at risk of underachievement.
Following the outcome of Budget 2011-2015, it was clear that I would need to make significant savings, in excess of £300 million, across the budget period as the funding available for education was significantly less than what had previously been in place. In this budget period, there have been 1,384 teacher redundancies and to date there have been 1,479 non-teaching redundancies.
Either we are building a new society or managing an old one. We are either moving forward to truly create a world class education system or we are stagnating and standing behind false claims that we already have one.
I make no apology for reviewing the education budget, on an ongoing basis, to allow me to target resources where they are most needed. One of my key priorities is to increase resources to schools catering for those children and young people identified as most in need because statistics consistently demonstrate that these children are the most likely to under-achieve.
I cannot sit by and allow this damaging social trend to continue, and I am encouraged by the improvements we are seeing in outcomes for pupils with free school meal entitlement.
To maintain the drive towards this key priority, I have therefore reprioritised £10 million of funding to schools in 2014-2015, to enhance the existing levels of Targeting Social Need support within schools’ delegated budgets.
The financial outlook for the education sector is difficult and there is merit in protecting the education budget. Offering protection is an investment in the educational future for our children and young people – an investment which I firmly believe is worth making.