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Scandal of Ulster's 50,000 empty school desks

By Kathryn Torney

Huge savings could be made by reducing the “ridiculous over-administration” of schools by moving to shared education for children, a new report claims.

There are currently 50,000 empty places in schools in Northern Ireland — around 15% of total capacity — and the education sector is bracing itself for substantial budget cuts of up to 25%.

The new report is launched today at the 15th Annual Northern Ireland Economic Conference.

Commissioned by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) and compiled by Oxford Economics, it argues that there are compelling arguments for shared education between the state and Catholic school sectors to be considered by the Stormont Executive urgently.

Shared education would involve schools delivering cross-community education services in a collaborative and joined-up manner and can include integrated education.

It is understood that Northern Ireland pays a premium of up to £300m each year to have a sectoral education system — a huge sum could potentially be saved.

The report, Developing The Case For Shared Education, stated that shared education could deliver more for less and therefore avoid “death by a thousand cuts”.

The authors also argued that long-term savings would be delivered through lower maintenance costs if new schools are built to replace school buildings. They said shared education would also reduce the 50,000 empty places currently in our schools and address inequality issues in terms of access to curriculum offerings.

There are almost 1,500 schools in Northern Ireland. Over the next 10 years it is estimated that around £3.6bn is needed to be invested in the schools’ estate.

The report warned that if expected budget cuts of 25% are implemented without change in how education is delivered “there are understandable fears of the long-term damage this would have in terms of quality of teaching, the state of the school estate and capital spending need — the so-called death by a thousand cuts”.

It also warned against delaying difficult decisions in the hope of a future return to funding levels.

The report also points out that — despite Northern Ireland annually producing record GCSE and A-level exam results — only the grammar system and parts of the Catholic maintained sector are performing above the UK average.

Baroness May Blood, IEF campaign chair, said: “We would go further than Oxford Economics; we see a ridiculous over-administration of education with duplication between various sectoral bodies.

“Any attempt to sit out the recession or alternatively to salami-slice spending here and there would be disastrous. The first choice leaves Northern Ireland exposed to greater financial problems in the future and lagging behind in economic planning; the second offers ‘death by a thousand cuts’ instead of a rejuvenated and efficient schools system.”

She said that the financial situation should be seen as an opportunity to spend smarter rather than simply to spend less.

And she continued: “Resources would be better used enhancing the quality of our education and the education experience of these young people than in propping up unnecessary administrative structures and duplicating services. We cannot continue to fund empty desks while buildings crumble and staffing budgets are squeezed; the status quo is unaffordable and the IEF seeks to be a driving force in bringing about a radical rethink of how money is allocated.”

She called for a taskforce to rethink education delivery.

In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, the report’s lead author Graeme Harrison writes: “The Executive needs to ask itself whether it is prepared to continue to fund the current 1,100-plus schools, financing a choice of schools on a denominational basis from a shrinking funding pot for possibly the next two Parliaments.”

The report is launched today at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast.

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