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NI Executive accused of treating kids ‘like pigs’ over plan for education budget cut

Worried minister ‘has the begging bowl out at every monitoring round’

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Education Minister Michelle McIlveen. Credit: Liam McBurney

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen. Credit: Liam McBurney

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen. Credit: Liam McBurney

The Executive has been warned against “equating children with pigs” ahead of a planned 2% cut to the education budget.

With the sector already facing extreme pressure over a £350m funding gap that is predicted to rise to more than £500m by 2024, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan accused the Finance Minister of giving “no priority whatsoever to our children”.

The education committee chair made the comments as MLAs quizzed Education Minister Michelle McIlveen about the impact of Covid on schools.

As well as more students taking time off, the number of teachers absent because of positive tests has increased to more than 1,400, or around 3% of the total workforce, during the past four weeks.

“The cut proposed in educational funding is concerning,” said Mr McCrossan.

“How can we do all the things we need to do to educate and keep our children safe?

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“Is the Finance Minister seriously putting children on the same level as pigs?

“All departments, apart from health, are being told there will be a cut in funding. That includes the Department of Agriculture.

“I have no words for this. No priority is being given by ministers to our children.”

DUP MLA Diane Dodds added: “There will be a £350m gap in education next year. There will be a further 2% cut on top of that. No other part of the UK is having a budget cut in education.”

The minister admitted she was “extremely concerned” over the looming reduction.

“I am continually highlighting the pressures with the Finance Minister. The begging bowl is out every monitoring round, but education is core to everything we do as a society. I welcome the support of the committee over this,” she said.

She also told the committee that retired teachers were being urged to come forward for work, with a register to be set up in the new year as the department seeks to plug staff gaps.

However, Ms McIlveen ruled out parachuting in student teachers, saying it would not be “reasonable or fair” to put trainees in that position.

“Trainee teachers need to be supervised in the classroom, limiting their value as an additional teaching resource,” she added.

“If the need for student teachers to be supervised was removed, that could leave them legally vulnerable as they are not yet qualified teachers. There are indemnity issues.”

She also warned that Omicron was taking the pandemic “into a new phase”.

“It is clear that among a unvaccinated school population, there are currently a high number of cases,” the minister said.

In the seven days up to December 12, the Public Health Agency recorded 3,405 cases of Covid in schools.

“There have been no new recommendations from the Department of Health that there should be any change in Covid guidance,” Ms McIlveen said.

“The focus is on encouraging adherence to the current messaging.

“I want to let the school leaders lead. Guidance has moved away as much as possible from telling schools what they must or cannot do. Mitigations should suit a school’s circumstances.

“If the Department of Health says there is a need to introduce further mitigations, this is a path we have been down before. I am confident the department is in a position to react swiftly if required. We continue to prepare for all scenarios.”

That includes a back-up plan should examinations not be held next summer.

“There are contingency plans in place with CCEA if there’s a need to cancel exams next year,” the minister said.

“We will be able to move fast, building on the experience of what happened last summer.”

Committee members were told school leaders had been made aware there would be challenges in January and that the Department of Education was ready to introduce extra mitigations if needed.

Ms McIlveen said closures remained a last resort.

“Closing schools will place children in the community and infections will rise,” she added.

“The situation is fluid and can change very quickly.

“We will continue to act on the scientific advice and decisions will be taken at an Executive level.”

The Department of Finance was contacted for comment.


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