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Education: Jobs, buildings, class sizes and special needs threatened by cuts

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Massive cuts to the education budget mean a radical rethink of how services are delivered in Northern Ireland is needed, it has been warned.

Sammy Wilson’s draft Budget this week revealed a £67m reduction in education spending over the next four years.

Educationalists are warning the impact of this will be felt right across the vast sector.

Despite assurances from Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, there are fears frontline services will take a big hit, with grim predictions of compulsory redundancies for teachers, classroom assistants and other educational support staff.

Bureaucracy, which eats up around 40% of the annual budget, will also have to be streamlined in some way.

And schools that are already running deficits because of the lack of pupils may be forced to continue operating at a loss despite many not being fit for purpose — raising the unpopular prospect of returning to the controversial Public Private Partnerships arrangement to generate revenue for new infrastructure.

Ulster Unionist education spokesman Basil McCrea said: “Education will be hit particularly hard.

“There is currently around £100m worth of must-do health and safety maintenance that needs to be done. There is a legal responsibility to make sure schools meet certain health and safety standards and even if the money is not there for a new build, there is costly work that needs to be done.

“Around 100 schools were given the indication about four years ago that they were getting a new school, but the minister has yet to bring out what the criteria will be for that. Obviously that list will now be reduced as well.”

The establishment of the Education and Skills Authority also looks as though it could be affected. The body was supposed to be set up to replace the five area boards and save the Education Department millions but the process has been dogged with delay and now looks unlikely to move forward given the current economic climate.

And another unpopular money-saving exercise could be axing free home-to-school transport for children whose parents choose to live 30 miles away when there is a suitable one within walking distance. It is estimated this move could save around £75m a year.

Mr McCrea said: “It will require a radical rethink and it needs to be done on a co-operative basis.”

Meanwhile, Fred Brown from teaching union NASUWT said he feared the most vulnerable pupils could suffer.

“The bottom line is that special needs cost more and I would be very worried that’s where they will target,” he said.

“There are already problems with access to child psychologists, with some children having to wait up to six months for an assessment. And if we cut classroom assistants that’s going to reduce the education quality for our children with special needs.

“I would be quite worried that they would try to increase class sizes. We know there is a relationship between class sizes and the performance of pupils.

“It’s not the time for cutting budgets in education. If the economy is to improve then having an educated workforce is an important factor in that recovery.”

The speculation on the impact of the Budget comes as pressure continues to mount on the Education Minister over her spending plans.

Ms Ruane has so far declined to speak publicly on the issue and despite repeated requests from this newspaper yesterday the minister was staying tight-lipped.

The SDLP’s Dominic Bradley said: “The minister has assured us that she will protect frontline services, but as yet she has not told us how she plans to do it and I am concerned.”

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