Lessons to be learnt in school funding crisis

Recent months have seen unprecedented levels of pressure upon Northern Ireland’s education system, with schools told in September to operate within a continuously shrinking budget. agendaNi assesses the latest funding crisis facing education, which the National Association of Head Teachers have claimed “may be felt for generations”.

Shrinking class sizes, narrow curriculum choices and widespread redundancies across the system have placed schools in a financial situation where the ramifications of swinging cuts to budgets may be felt for generations ahead, according to Geri Cameron, President of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in Northern Ireland. Calling for an urgent reform of the current system at an appearance at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, her warnings have joined a cacophony of voices who have raised a crisis alarm regarding the funding of the region’s schools.

Recently published departmental accounts for 2017-18 revealed a significant overspend of £18.9 million in the budget of the Education Authority – a fact attributed to previous funding priorities, which saw an increased expenditure on schools and pupils with special educational needs. Whilst previous funding has attempted to address the shortfall in special educational provision, significant gaps continue to remain in services for children in areas of special need and social deprivation.

A crisis in classrooms

Acknowledging the funding crisis, it has been highlighted by the Ulster Teachers’ Union that Northern Ireland receives a maximum of only 59 per cent of the overall education budget directly from Westminster, in contrast to the rest of the UK, where between 2 and 10 per cent of schools’ funding is retained at the centre. It was similarly highlighted that spending on pre-school, primary and secondary education per pupil is around 46 per cent higher in Scotland, 18 per cent higher in England and 31 per cent higher in Wales. Such budgetary constraints have led to warnings of “significant and unique challenges” by Department of Education Permanent Secretary, Derek Baker.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, published a report in October which identified a system “close to a tipping point” with glaring “sustainability issues”, highlighting a 9.3 per cent reduction in the education budget and deficits of up to £1.6 million in some of the region’s primary schools. Addressing the findings, Donnelly recommended that the Department of Education and the Education Authority “undertake a fundamental review of how schools are funded”, whilst also ensuring that “appropriate and effective interventions are developed and applied to reduce the risk of mismanagement”.

Responding to the Auditor’s report, the Department of Education accepted all recommendations, but noted that such changes must be made as “part of an overall transformative education programme”, calling for sweeping reforms and the return of a Stormont Executive.

Indicative figures published in April signalled that the education budget would be cut, prompting an outcry from teachers and parents, culminating in letters sent to parents of pupils in affected schools. The letters warned of a system that is “failing” children: “Our children deserve nothing but the best and anything less is simply unacceptable”.  The statement, issued by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the Governing Bodies Association, the Catholic Heads Association, the Association of Controlled Grammar Schools and the Voluntary Bursars Association, warned that schools have exhausted “all reasonable cost reducing steps”.

Such “cost reducing steps” have come under close scrutiny — including admissions that schools have been forced to raise fees for after-schools clubs, turn off heating in Winter and in the case of Maghaberry Primary, parents have been asked to donate toilet roll, according to school principal, Graham Gault. Admissions of a system “bursting at the seams” were made by several representatives of the schools system in a Commons Select Committee Inquiry into education funding levels in Northern Ireland.

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