Belfast Telegraph

Bradley urged to act now as schools struggle under strain of 'unmanageable pressures'

Secretary of State Karen Bradley is facing calls to act on school budgets
Secretary of State Karen Bradley is facing calls to act on school budgets
Simon Hoare MP
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

The Secretary of State has been urged to intervene to address the "crisis" facing Northern Ireland's schools in the absence of devolved government.

A Westminster committee recommended that Karen Bradley increase the education budget and introduce regulations previously agreed by the Assembly before its collapse.

The stark message is set out in a report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which warns that a growing funding gap has resulted in "unmanageable pressures" on school budgets.

It comes days after the Department of Education's top official, permanent secretary Derek Baker, warned the system is facing "significant" financial challenges.

The rising number of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) pupils is a key driver of the trend, MPs said.

Committee members have now called for Northern Ireland's education budget to be increased in line with pupil numbers and to reflect the costs associated with caring for SEND students who require dedicated support.

Almost a quarter (23%) of the school population here has special educational needs or disabilities. There were 2,800 additional pupils with special needs in 2017/18 compared with the previous year.

Following an in-depth inquiry into education funding in the 2018/19 Northern Ireland budget, set at Westminster due to the absence of an Assembly, the NI Affairs Committee said schools here urgently need more money to address the growing pressures facing staff, pupils and parents.

During the inquiry the committee heard that some schools are under such financial strain that parents have donated supplies such as toilet roll and stationery.

Additionally, many schools have struggled to provide support to the growing number of SEND students.

The report notes that some regulations to alleviate pressure on schools were previously agreed at Stormont but have not been implemented since its collapse.

The committee has urged Mrs Bradley to introduce these regulations in Westminster and recommended that future budget allocations for education should reflect the increasing number of children with SEND in Northern Ireland's school system.

It also calls on the Department of Education to set out which factors it considers when determining special school budgets.

The report outlines how a new teacher in Northern Ireland was paid six per cent less than their counterparts in England or Wales, 23% less than in Scotland and 47% less than in the Republic of Ireland.

The value of teachers' pay scales in Northern Ireland have remained unchanged since 2016, despite increases in England and Wales in 2017 and 2018.

NASUWT, the teachers' union, estimates that, after adjusting for inflation, teachers' pay in Northern Ireland has fallen by 20% since 2010.

The committee has branded the pay differentiation "deeply unfair" and called for it to be corrected.

Committee chair Simon Hoare MP said that without an Executive or Assembly, budgeting challenges have now mounted to become a crisis.

"Stagnant funding is evidently having a devastating impact on the ability of Northern Ireland's schools to provide the education and support their pupils deserve," he said.

"Future budget allocations for education in Northern Ireland should be tied to the measurable increase in students in the education system, particularly those with SEND.

"This would help to provide adequate support for schools struggling to cope with new pressures.

"Additionally, Northern Ireland's dedicated teachers deserve pay rises like their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

"The Secretary of State can take action to improve the situation for SEND care by implementing regulations previously agreed at Stormont.

"The Secretary of State must also authorise the permanent secretary of the Department of Education to authorise a teachers' pay deal once it has been agreed by trade unions."

The report warns that lasting change can only come from a restored Northern Ireland Executive.

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