The UUP has accused outgoing Sinn Fein Education Minister John O’Dowd of leaving behind a “budgetary mess”.
The party made the claim after school leaders issued a statement saying an unprecedented cash crisis could lead to shorter school days and a smaller subject pool.
The Department of Education is facing a reduction of £72m in its resource budget in 2016/17, and in March Mr O’Dowd announced the Aggregated Schools Budget would be cut by 0.8%.
On top of absorbing this, schools must also fund a 3.4% rise in employer National Insurance contributions — an average £70,000 increase per school — as well as a 4.1% rise in employer superannuation contributions and cost of living pay rises for staff of between 1% and 2.2%.
The UUP’s Sandra Overend said the situation was not good enough. “In his time as minister, there has been a yearly crisis surrounding the Aggregated Schools Budget — the money that goes directly to frontline teaching services in schools,” she added.
“Previously, he always found extra money from behind the departmental sofa, but this time he is leaving the problem for someone else to sort out. The UUP has consistently said that under Sinn Fein, the education budget has been a mess, with yearly crises. The easy line the minister trots out about blaming Westminster austerity has been worn out.”
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly also criticised Mr O’Dowd’s performance as minister. She accused him of “failing to take action to address financial pressures on education budgets” and claimed the funding crisis has been “barrelling down the line for months with no intervention from the department”.
“It’s right that school leaders have taken a stand against the onslaught of austerity that they have been strong-armed into,” the MLA added.
“I raised this issue with the Education Minister over a month ago, and his spin simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“The Department continues to claim the Aggregated Schools Budget has been cut by 0.8%. But the problem is 10 times worse than that.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) Northern Secretary Gerry Murphy said there was effectively a 5.8% reduction in the schools budget.
Speaking yesterday after INTO’s Principals Consultative Conference in Cookstown Mr Murphy added: “A major concern raised was, of course, the 0.8% budget cuts by the Department of Education and the 5% increase in National Insurance contributions for employers, which effectively means a 5.8% reduction in the budget.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that in setting the 2016-17 Education Resource Budget, the Education Minister “has focused, as he has done consistently, on protecting the Aggregated Schools Budget as far as possible, promoting equality and raising education standards”.