Lessons to be learnt in education inquiry

Credit: Fred Mills

As Northern Ireland’s public sector struggles to function in the absence of a Stormont Executive, education has emerged as one of the most burdened victims of cutbacks entailed in the Northern Ireland Budget Act. agendaNi reflects on the upcoming inquiry into education funding, led by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Recent times have fostered an era of unprecedented challenge for Northern Ireland’s public sector. The collapse of Stormont and subsequent absence of a functioning Assembly, combined with the upheaval of Brexit has created a situation in which civil servants and departmental staff are faced with the twin issues of funding constraints and uncertainty around major decision-making. The UK Government-imposed budget for the Department of Education prompted calls for an inquiry after the Department’s finance director, Gary Fair, sent letters to schools across the province stating that “very difficult decisions had to be taken,” and that “it has not been possible to fund the additional pressures facing schools in 2018-19”.

Watchdog concerns

Concerns arose over budgetary issues after a team led by Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, Kieran Donnelly, discovered that Northern Ireland’s Education Authority had overspent by over £19 million in 2016/17. The watchdog found that the Education Authority’s total expenditure over that period amounted to £1,562.5 million, which was £19.1 million over its set budget of £1,534.4 million. The overspend was attributed to a “higher than expected” spend on school budgets (£7.8 million), special educational needs (£6.8 million) and school maintenance (£3.9 million). However, teachers, parents and trade unions have expressed concern at the impending cuts, with a collective statement from the Association of School and College Leaders warning that such measures will create a “critical situation”.

Beyond this notable overspend, the Department of Education has faced other issues surrounding its budget and spending power for most of the past decade, with increasing numbers of schools seeing dwindling budgets and a substantial deficit. The previous Transition Fund, originally intended to be a one-year adjustment three years ago in 2014/15, was subsumed into the formula funding share for all schools, with further adjustments to funding streams placing additional pressures on the Department. £2.4 million has been reallocated from post-primary to nursery and primary funding streams in a move designed to “reflect demographic changes” and to moderate changes to the AWPU cash value within the two formula streams. These amendments, combined with the consequences of previous overspends, has led to a warning from the Education Authority that “all schools’ budgets must be managed on the assumption that there will be no further in-year allocations from the department during 2018-19”.

“The allocation of the £1 billion confidence and supply package has yet to be agreed. Indeed, such an agreement may remain a distant prospect in the current phase of political impasse at Stormont.”

An incoming inquiry

Notably, Donnelly found glaring issues in the Department of Education which shed further light on a department in crisis. The report found that the Education Authority was not formally told what its allocated budget was until March 23, 2016 – less than a week before the start of the financial year. Organisational concerns were also highlighted in how the EA did not agree how the budget would be managed, including the savings to be achieved until over five months later in August 2016. Furthermore, it was found that the Education Authority was obliged to receive prior approval before overspending, a condition which the organisation did not meet during that period.

The concerns noted by the Auditor General have led to the establishment of an inquiry by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, chaired by Conservative MP, Andrew Murrison. The inquiry aims to examine whether levels of funding allocated to education in Northern Ireland are sufficient to meet its needs, and what spending priorities should be going forward. The inquiry will also examine who will be responsible for taking “difficult, potentially challengeable spending decisions”. It is believed that question surrounding whether funding is sufficient will be an overarching aspect of the inquiry. However, statements from Education Authority Chief Executive, Gavin Boyd, has repeatedly drawn attention to a “funding crisis” with 22 schools going into deficit compared with the previous year, despite claiming that “99 per cent of the EA’s budget is spent directly on schools or on services directly supporting children and young people.”

Identifying priorities

The Committee will also question how the UK Government should manage additional funding earmarked for education as part of the confidence and supply arrangement agreed between the Conservative Party and the DUP. The education allocation of the £1 billion package has yet to be agreed, however it is understood that current plans are presently focussed on the improvement of high-speed broadband services across Northern Ireland. Indeed, such an agreement on funding allocation may remain a distant prospect in the current phase of political impasse at Stormont.

Terms of reference of the inquiry will focus on whether levels of capital funding are sufficient to support investment in improvements to Northern Ireland schools, as well as identifying the greatest areas of need in the education sector. Levels of “unexpected costs” on special education needs and building maintenance suggest that these are major and previously unidentified areas of priority.

The inquiry will also raise questions on how funding can be best deployed to ensure value for money, including support for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

The ‘value for money’ aspect has been highlighted by Justin McCamphill, National Official at NASUWT.

“Education is already at breaking point,” says McCamphill, “and Children and young people are suffering from the legacies of political failure, mismanagement, no long-term budget planning and money being frittered away on pet projects.

“The NASUWT remains resolutely opposed to budget cuts in education and our members will be strengthened in their current action short of strike action by this news.”

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