Education in Northern Ireland is “highly underfunded”, with recurrent funding for the Department of Education having been reduced by £145 million in real terms in the last decade, a review has found.
In what local politicians have described as a “punishment budget”, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris MP made the decision to reduce public spending on education by £70 million. This is symptomatic of cuts to education funding over decades. For reference, in Britain, total spending in education is projected to grow by 9.8 per cent over the next two fiscal years.
This longstanding and constant underfunding has dominated the review, commissioned under New Decade, New Approach following the reestablishment of the Executive in January 2020 and published in December 2023, to make a suite of recommended measures which it claims would improve educational outcomes.
The first measure proposed in the review is that early years education should be expanded, with the desirable objective being that two-year-olds should receive up to 20 hours of education per week and that three-year-olds receive up to 22.5 hours per week for 38 weeks of the year.
“Accompanied by the planned expansion of funded pre-school education this would represent a significant investment in early childhood development. It is estimated that a universal two-year-old programme could cost up to £110 million per annum,” the review states.
In terms of funding, the review outlines that, in a constrained funding position, the priority for decision-makers should be to ensure “equitable and effective provision for all learners while offering additional support to disadvantaged children and their families” and that the immediate priority should be “those in disadvantage, before moving to more universal provision”.
To combat educational disadvantage, the review recommends that the Fair Start Programme should be funded and implemented and that the Engage Programme should be evaluated, and a business case developed to assess the widest potential benefits to Northern Ireland of mainstreaming such an approach to provide ongoing targeted support for learners at risk of disadvantage.
The report makes numerous recommendations that it states would positively contribute to combatting disadvantage. These include:
- investing in early childhood education;
- introducing pre-vocational pathways from 14 years old;
- removing qualification requirements that prevent progression;
- prioritising wellbeing;
- investing in continuing professional development;
- measuring success other than attainment at 16 or 18 years;
- raising the age of educational participation to 18 years old;
- developing a thriving college sector with valued vocational qualifications; and
- providing educational opportunities for under-qualified adults.
Improving SEN support
To improve learner support, inclusion, and wellbeing, the review outlines the need to transform SEN (students with a statement of special educational needs) support “to cater equitably for the needs of all learners”.
On SEN support, the review is stark, asserting that “current policies, practices, and legislation are failing to deliver support for learners with SEN”. At the same time, the review argues that expenditure is out of control in a way that “threatens the quality of service for all learners”.
“Thorough reform is urgently required. The use of resources should be based on equitable treatment of all pupils.”
The authors of the review say that a comprehensive learner support workforce programme should be developed and implemented to increase the number of specialist provision professionals (such as trained SEN teachers, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists, etc.) whilst reducing the number of classroom assistants.
“Learners with statements of SEN should not be considered as supernumerary to admission or enrolment figures. This approach should allow institutions to prepare to meet the needs of these learners. The goal should be to adopt a ‘SEN first’ model that ensures that learners with a statement of SEN receive school placements in a timely manner.”
Other proposed changes
Other points of note include a proposal to make education mandatory until the age of 18, and the need for a single education department, with the Department of Education only assuming responsibility for primary and post-primary education, while further and higher education falls under the remit of the Department for the Economy.
The review also calls for the limiting of the number of students undertaking transfer tests and the promotion of the need for increased flexibility at age 14 to allow students to transfer to different institutions if they wish.
Sinn Féin Stormont spokesperson for education Pat Sheehan MLA said the review puts a “welcome focus on SEN and early years” but ignores the “long tale of underachievement”.
“The review appears to ignore the major, and well documented, fault-line within our education system which is the long tale of underachievement in the North and the practices, such as academic selection, which drive it,” Sheehan said.
DUP education spokesperson Diane Dodds MLA said that “there are both challenges for those involved in education as well as providing solutions across a number of areas”.
Alliance education spokesperson Nick Mathison MLA said that while he welcomed the report, that “many of these recommendations are only possible with an Education Minister in post”.
“This report can bring real transformation within our education system but only if a reformed and properly funded Assembly and Executive is up and running.”