Despite being only second to health in the overall allocation, the Department of Education’s budget is “wholly insufficient” to address the significant pressures facing the education sector.
At the beginning of 2022, officials from the Department told MLAs that the education sector faces unavoidable significant cost pressures and rising service demands associated with delivering statutory and policy obligations.
Worryingly, officials attending the Assembly’s Education Committee were speaking in the context of proposed additional funding allocations in the draft budget, which parties failed to agree before the Assembly collapsed.
Finance Director for the Department of Education, Gary Friar, told MLAs that while the Department welcomed the then-proposed additional funding allocation, “the proposed additional funding allocation is wholly insufficient to address the significant pressures that face the education sector”.
Friar emphasised that without additional funding, it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for the Department to take forward key actions including the implementation of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, the continued implementation of the Fair Start action plan, future teachers’ pay settlements and recommendations from the independent review of education.
In February 2022, following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, Finance Minister Conor Murphy MLA paused the consultation on a draft three-year Executive Budget.
The draft budget, published without cross-party agreement and therefore unlikely to be approved without wide-ranging changes, prioritised an increase in health spending, necessitating a 2 per cent cut from most other departments. However, additional funding arising from an increase in the block grant means that the Department of Education’s allocation was set to rise beyond its 2021-22 budget allocation of £2.345 billion resource departmental expenditure limits (resource DEL) to £2.431 billion in 2022-23, £2.471 billion in 2023-24 and £2.503 billion in 2024-25.
Departmental non-ring-fenced resource outcome 2021-22 (£ million)
The extent of the significant funding gap likely to occur in the Department’s budget can be seen in that on top of their baseline £2.345 billion, the Department was allocated a further £44.4 million from £127 million of Covid-19 funding given to the Executive and £43.3 million from the January 2021-22 monitoring round.
The monitoring round funds broke down to almost £12 million resources pressures such as school maintenance, £18.3 million for SEN pressures and £2.4 million for voluntary exit scheme costs.
In preparation for the draft Budget, in autumn 2021, the Department of Education submitted resource bids to the Department of Finance which assumed a baseline resource DEL of £2,269.6 million. The Department of Education, taking into consideration only those pressures which are inescapable or pre-committed, reported an estimated funding gap of £367.03 million for 2022-23, with the gap increasing in subsequent years.
Even when considering the 4 per cent increase in resource DEL allocated under the draft Budget for 2022-2023, compared to the previous year, the funding gap was still identified as £204.5 million.
The Assembly’s education committee has previously identified four areas of particular concern in relation to any budgetary gap, namely:
• Covid-19 safety and resourcing of schools for continuity in education;
• SEN provision;
• children and young people’s emotional and mental health (including: access to the outdoors and early interventions for emotional regulation); and
• issues surrounding equal opportunities in education.
Other concerns exist around the budgetary gap. Added to concerns of school budget sustainability in the face of rising energy costs is the enactment of the Integrated Education Bill in March 2022, the implementation of which will require additional funding.
Estimated resource DEL funding gap (£ million)