Northern Ireland’s under-pressure education system needs at least £400 million a year extra, a minister has said.
Education Minister Peter Weir told members of his Assembly scrutiny committee that the money was needed to address a teachers’ pay dispute, improve special needs provision, bolster schools’ operating budgets and finance a planned childcare strategy.
He said while the executive was expecting a “considerable increase” in the block grant in the forthcoming budget, it would not be enough to meet the demands of all Stormont’s different departments.
Certainly several hundred million (pounds), maybe somewhere in the region of about three to four hundred million at least that would need to be increased in terms of the budgetPeter Weir, Education Minister
“So it’s how much of that cake that we get,” he added.
The minister, who was addressing the committee for the first time since the restoration of powersharing, said there was a need for a “step change” in the level of funding given to his department.
The Department of Education’s budget is around £2 billion a year.
“Certainly several hundred million (pounds), maybe somewhere in the region of about three to four hundred million at least that would need to be increased in terms of the budget,” he said.
Mr Weir told the committee that an agreement between teacher unions and management to resolve an industrial dispute over pay covering the period 2017-19 was “oven-ready” and just needed the money to finance it.
“We are estimating in terms of pay roughly about £150 million maybe needed to cover all those aspects in terms of pay – not just the settlement (2017-19) but if we’re looking at potentially what could be settlements for 19/20 and 20/21 and for the non-teaching side of it,” he said.
Mr Weir said around £75 million was needed to improve special needs provision.
On the issues many schools were facing to cover their day to day budgets, the minister said: “To essentially get it to the point where the head is above water, ideally we need at least £50 or £60 million on that side of things.”
The deal that restored powersharing includes a commitment to develop a childcare strategy.
Mr Weir said if the executive moved to a model that would see the provision of 30 free hours of childcare a week, it could cost between £40 million to £90 million a year.
He said the Executive wanted to move quickly on the issue of childcare but cautioned that a new system would not be ready in the forthcoming financial year.
The minister said he was committed to implementing reforms within his department that could deliver cost-savings.
But he warned that reforms alone could not plug the funding hole.
“You can do all the reforms in the world and it will not come anywhere close to filling that level of gap,” he said.