Belfast Telegraph

Concern as Northern Ireland education body busts budget for a second year

Report: Kieran Donnelly
Report: Kieran Donnelly
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

The body responsible for delivering education services in Northern Ireland exceeded its budget by more than £16m last year.

It is the second year in a row that the Education Authority (EA) has overspent.

Most of the £16.6m additional costs in 2017/18 were linked to an overspend in special education needs.

The details emerge in a report published today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

The EA has said there are "very real challenges" facing the education sector.

The body replaced the five former education and library boards in April 2015. It is responsible for ensuring that efficient and effective primary and secondary education services are available to meet the needs of children and young people.

Today's report by auditor general Kieran Donnelly details an audit of the 2017/18 accounts.

Over that year, the EA overspent by £16.6m, in comparison with its total budget of £1.88bn, allocated by its two sponsoring departments - the Department of Education and the Department for the Economy.

This was mainly due to overspends in special education needs (£12.7m), school meals (£2.4m) and the unfunded apprenticeship levy (£5.3m), offset by net underspending in other areas.

Mr Donnelly had previously reported on overspend by the EA of £19.1m in 2016/17.

He published reports on 'Special Education Needs' in 2017 and 'The Financial Health of Schools' in 2018, with both reports recommending a review of school funding arrangements.

The issues leading to an overspend in education services in 2016/17 were still prevalent the following year.

The EA said that, as budget allocations have essentially remained cash flat, it has been unable to absorb increased demand and inflationary pressures.

Mr Donnelly said: "I'm concerned that once again the EA has overspent on its budget and that DE and EA were unable to agree the 2017/18 budget until January 2018.

"In my report on the financial health of schools, published in October 2018, I highlighted an environment where there is pressure on school budgets, increasing pupil numbers, and schools with sustainability issues.

"I welcome the EA and DE's recognition of the need to reform the education sector, which I consider urgent. I will continue to keep this area under review."

EA chief executive Sara Long said: "EA's annual report and accounts for 2017-18 highlights the significant work undertaken as we continue to establish EA as a regional organisation while maintaining delivery of essential services with significantly fewer staff and less money.

"We recognise the significance of the £16.6m overspend in 2017-18 highlighted by the comptroller and auditor general (C&AG) and we welcome his recognition of the challenges we face as an organisation."

She said special educational needs, school meals and the unfunded apprenticeship levy are "very real challenges facing schools and the wider education sector", adding: "We welcome the timely recommendation by the C&AG that schools' funding arrangements should be reviewed."

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