Belfast Telegraph

School meal costs could rise as education service struggles to make cuts

The cost of school meals could rise and music services slashed as education officials struggle to save costs, a committee of MLAs has been told.

New school bus charges may also have to be introduced and schools forced to pay the cost of maternity cover and substitute staff.

However, with no budget agreed for the new financial year due to the crisis at Stormont, it has been warned that the situation facing education services could potentially get worse.

Gary Fair, a senior civil servant with the Department of Education, attempted to reassure politicians that everything was being done to mitigate the impact of budget reductions.

But he admitted: "There is uncertainty until a budget is passed."

The political crisis has meant that the Northern Ireland Executive still has not agreed a budget for the 2017/18 financial year.

Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows the permanent secretary in the Department of Finance to take control of finances if a budget has not been passed at least three working days before the end of the financial year.

If he does so, he will only be able to access up to 75% of this year's budget and direct how it is spent.

By the end of July, if there is still no deal, he has the right to spend an amount equivalent to 95% of this year's budget.

Mr Fair told Stormont's Education Committee: "Because Section 59 is intended to be a short term measure, I think from a planning perspective most organisations maybe will have to plan for what they have this year. We hope a budget can be passed sometime into the year.

"The intention behind 75% is that spend can continue as normal at the start of the year."

Alliance MLA Chris Little said he was concerned about the financial situation facing schools.

He told the committee that the Education Authority had drawn up a draft list of proposals to make savings of £23 million in the new financial year, 2017/18. These proposals were drawn up even before the collapse of the power sharing government and the resulting budget uncertainty.

Mr Little said the proposals include a 5p to 10p increase in school meals, 10% increase in music service charges, 10% cost reduction in music service, new home to school transport charges and changes to the common funding scheme, with schools possibly having to pay for maternity cover and staff substitution costs.

Mr Fair told him that the proposals are "under discussion at the moment by the Education Authority Board".

DUP MLA Maurice Morrow said: "This is a very dire situation we are looking at. Might we be seeing teachers being put on notice? That would be catastrophic."

Mr Fair responded: "I would be hopeful things could be resolved to avoid that. I hope a budget act can be passed. We wouldn't want to see schools having to make cuts to the staffing."

There was annoyance at the start of the meeting that Sinn Fein's two committee members had failed to turn up.

Mr Little said he had not received apologies from Committee chairman Barry McElduff and his Sinn Fein colleague Catherine Seeley.

The SDLP's Colin McGrath and the UUP's Sandra Overend were also absent, but they were on constituency business, Mr Little said.

"There are those who have walked away from the children of this country. For their own political end they have failed the children of this country," the DUP's Carla Lockhart said.

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