David Whelan speaks to Permanent Secretary for the Department of Education Derek Baker about the widely recognised financial pressures within the sector, ongoing work in the absence of an Executive and progress on much-needed transformation.
Baker is one of the current cohort of permanent secretaries with an undesirable asterisk beside his job title having never served under a minister while heading up his current department.
The former Deputy Secretary in the Department for the Economy took on the role in education almost two and a half years ago, bypassing the then outgoing Minister for Education Peter Weir. The absence of political direction for such a prolonged period of time is something that the senior civil servant describes as “astonishing”.
Echoing the language of his recent blunt assessment of the frustrations the absence of Stormont is causing in the education sector, given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s inquiry into education funding in Northern Ireland, the Permanent Secretary describes the absence of accountability on him as “wrong” and “potentially dangerous”.
“There is much that needs attended to in education and everybody agrees that that needs to be driven front and centre by a minister. There are big policy decisions, big strategic decisions and big resource allocation decisions that all need to be taken by a minister and an Executive”.
Discussing how he as the senior civil servant has had “to step into the breach”, Baker is quick to point out that his is a restricted role. “It is wrong that I as an unelected public servant should be taking policy decisions, so I don’t. There are some things that we do to keep services running in the form of day-to-day decisions but we are constantly checking and re-checking to make sure that we don’t veer into the territory of ministers.”
Despite the many frustrations facing the sector and the Department, Baker describes his current role as one that he is “thoroughly” enjoying and outlines a greater realisation “that there is nothing so important as investment in young people”, while getting a greater appreciation of “the fantastic work being done throughout the sector”.
However, he admits that his two-and-a-half-year tenure has been dominated by “one huge problem” in the form of well-documented budgetary pressures in the education system.
“There is no doubt that the education system and youth services are under great stress because of the financial problems and that is difficult for all concerned,” he says. “However, despite this, as I get out and see what is being delivered in our schools, our pre-school settings and our youth services, it is remarkable how well the system is doing despite those pressures.”
Baker describes the high performance of Northern Ireland’s primary schools against international standards and year-on-year improvement in attainment levels in post-primary schools is a “fantastic achievement” and a “testimony to school leadership teams and all those involved in delivering education”.
The system has absorbed these pressures for the last number of years, but it cannot absorb them anymore and for this reason we are seeing more and more schools falling into deficit.
Last year, a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office into the financial health of schools, described an environment where there is pressure on school budgets, increasing pupil numbers and schools with sustainability issues and said that the system was at “tipping point”. This assessment is one that is accepted by Baker, who outlines a fear that failure to act could mean decline in those achievements attained by the sector.
Reviewing how the education system has got to its current level of pressure, Baker describes a “perfect storm” of three core challenges in the shape of: a flat budget in cash terms over the past decade; rising costs in the form of inflation and an increasing pay bill, a significant factor given that 90 per cent of a school’s spend is attributed to salaries; and rising service demands created by increasing numbers of pupils entering the system and more pupils with special needs.
“The system has absorbed these pressures for the last number of years, but it cannot absorb them any more and for this reason we are seeing more and more schools falling into deficit. Those schools lucky enough to have accumulated surpluses are seeing those rapidly decline. There is not enough money in the system.”
Baker admits that resources alone will not provide a solution: “We have a complex education system and we need reform and transformation. We need rationalisation of the schools’ estate, where it is appropriate. This presents difficult problems and we’re pressing ahead as best we can with those in the absence of a minister. We need both additional resource and transformation.”
The Permanent Secretary explains that recent additional resources in the form of the Confidence and Supply arrangement between the DUP and the UK Government (£36.5 million in year one and £16.5 million in year two) was a welcome addition but had a limited impact.
“It didn’t allow us to expand any services but what it did do was mitigate cuts that we would have had to make in reducing a number of non-statutory services aimed at tackling deprivation. The money was very welcome but the problem turns to what happens next year. With no guarantee of this funding continuing, I can’t factor it into next year’s budget.”
Another factor that has somewhat eased the pressure on the Department, in terms of delivering some aspects of transformation, was the passing of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, legislation which provided civil servants with greater legal clarity to make decisions in the absence of ministers. Prior to the legislation, Baker admits that a court judgement which went against a major planning decision taken by the Department of Infrastructure had “brought to a shuddering halt” some work, such as decisions around school development proposals.
The Act allowed such work to restart but Baker says that it “is not a panacea”. “The Act and associated guidance don’t give us carte blanche to do everything. It still makes it clear that major policy decisions will remain the preserve of a minister.”
Decisions which are currently being taken by the Department include those development proposals, which relate to the closure, merger and expansion of schools. Until Stormont’s collapse, development proposal decisions had never been taken by a Permanent Secretary during devolution but by the end of April this year some 19 development proposals had been made, manifesting as 17 approvals and two non-approvals. Recently, the Department added resource capacity to the two main managing authorities, the Education Authority (EA) and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS), in an attempt to increase the tempo of development proposals coming forward.
There are positive opportunities ahead but the pressure of finance is always with us.
Baker highlights that progress is also advancing in other areas in the absence of a minister. In early 2018 the Department initiated an education transformation programme supported by “modest but welcome” resource from the Department of Finance. Workstreams of the projects undertaken are focusing on efficiency and effectiveness, educational outcomes and services to schools. In particular, one notable project was the ongoing review of home to school transport, an area in which the Department spends around £80 million per year. A preliminary analysis has recently been published by the Department and work is underway to draw up more concrete proposals which would be open to consultation.
An issue of such significance would likely need ministerial sign off eventually, however, like the development proposals (the development proposal process is also being reviewed), there is opportunity for progress in some areas in Stormont’s absence. The common funding formula for schools, for example, which Baker says is under review. As too is the Department’s policy on the transition of young people to school and the 14 to 19 policy, working with the Department for the Economy in relation to the education and training provision for 14-to 19-year-olds.
Baker adds: “We’re also working to improve the services that the Education Authority provides to schools, in response to stakeholder feedback. One area in particular is around technology and the integration of the best technology into schools. The Classroom 2000 (C2k) project, for example, providing connected ICT infrastructure to every grant-aided school across Northern Ireland is up for renewal and is a big part of that technology focus. The potential for using technology in schools is vast and we’re focussed on getting that right.”
Progress is being made, however, as Baker has alluded to, major decisions still require ministerial sign off and, in some instances, this has brought about stagnation. A childcare strategy for Northern Ireland, for example, was committed to in the 2011-16 Programme for Government. Despite the conclusion of a consultation in November 2015, the collapse of the Executive means that the strategy is “going nowhere”.
“The issue is one of such significance and requires major policy direction and funding decisions that we could not take it forward in the absence of ministers,” explains Baker.
Similar circumstances surround a children and young people’s strategy for Northern Ireland. The Executive’s draft strategy had been largely agreed and consultation had presented a high degree of consensus. While Baker is cautious not to usurp the role of the Executive, he explains that he is exploring whether or not he could bring forward a cross-departmental strategy based on the outcome of the consultation.
“I think it is important not to lose the momentum of the good work done in relation to the strategy and I’m hoping I can move ahead in a limited fashion. Unfortunately, the childcare strategy was further back in development process and still requires fundamental decisions.”
Turning to another ongoing challenge for the Department and one that Baker describes as an “absolute priority” is that of the ongoing teachers’ pay dispute. Four of the five teaching unions (the fifth is balloting members) have been in dispute with the Department over pay and workload with many members refusing to co-operate with school inspections since 2017.
Baker believes that the impact of the action short of strike has gone below the public and political radar. “People haven’t noticed and to some extent that’s down to the fact that school leaders and leadership teams have been managing the situation, placing huge pressure upon themselves. This has created difficulties for schools and largely prevented school inspections from taking place. That is wrong. Inspection is the mechanism through which the public get assurances about the quality of teaching and learning.
“It’s an issue that must be addressed. We have put a lot of effort into discussions with the unions, with whom we generally have a good working relationship, and the seeking of a resolution is top of my priorities.”
Recently a package with the trade unions was agreed, however, a resolution would require the securing of funding and clearance to step outside the framework of public sector pay policy. “The challenge is difficult to address because it is tied up with budgetary pressures. One element of the dispute relates to pay and pay costs money. However, I think everyone involved is engaged in finding a resolution.”
Looking to the year ahead, Baker is hopeful that a significant investment in education announced by the Chancellor Sajid Javid during the recent 2019 Spending Review will have a Barnett consequential for Northern Ireland. However, he is aware that while extra finances are welcome, the current pressures in the education system could mean that additional resource would again “plug holes” rather than allow for the expansion of services.
One positive the Permanent Secretary see is his belief that there is “a clear political recognition” at UK level and within the Northern Ireland Office (who may or may not remain the decision-makers in budget allocation), that “something needs to be done about education funding”.
As well as resolving the industrial despite the Permanent Secretary has ambitions to “push ahead” where possible with the delivery of the delayed Strule shared education campus in Omagh, the biggest school building project in Northern Ireland, which will eventually see six schools built on the site of the former Lisanelly army base in Omagh. Baker describes the project, which has encountered procurement difficulties as “a massive investment in the future of young people in the area”.
Another priority involves the bringing forward of a Special Education Needs framework following the passing of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Northern Ireland) 20016. Baker says that while again finances will be a challenge, there is a need to make progress. Stating his desire to see the system “get to grips with the best way to deliver for children with special education needs”, he explains that his department is hoping to open soon a public consultation on a new draft code of practice and draft regulations. He adds: “Again, in the absence of ministers we are probably in a grey area consulting on a statutory code of practice and draft regulations but I want to see progress and there is an opportunity to get the framework in place.”
Baker continues: “Another area we intend to look at, recognising that we only have modest resources available, is the increasing problems of mental health amongst young people and those who are presenting in schools. In this we are working with our colleagues in the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency to consider what kind of framework of support we might put in, over and above what we already have in place.”
The Permanent Secretary concludes: “There are positive opportunities ahead but the pressure of finance is always with us. It’s a restriction on what we can do but let’s see what next year’s budget brings on foot of the Chancellor’s announcement.”