Up to £300m could be saved every year by ending Northern Ireland’s segregated schools system, it has was claimed last night.
he claim came as latest figures revealed that the two main school sectors in Northern Ireland are now costing the public purse an annual £940 million — even though they have 16,000 empty desks between them.
Education Minister Caitriona Ruane yesterday revealed the yearly bill for supporting Catholic maintained schools has gone up from £330m a decade ago to £490m in the 2009/2010 financial year.
She also revealed there are an estimated 9,666 unoccupied school places in the sector.
And in the controlled, mainly Protestant, sector — where total costs have soared from £316m in the year 2000 to £450m — there are a further 6,963 empty places.
The extent of the problem grows even further when the grammar, integrated and Irish medium schools are added in — statistics compiled by Ms Ruane’s department show 1,009 spare desks in the controlled and voluntary grammar schools, 709 in the integrated sector and 32 in the Irish medium schools.
Education sources say there are many ways money could be saved, such as by merging schools, cutting down on administration and ending wasteful practices such as busing children to schools outside their geographical area.
With an increased focus on potential savings to the public purse, it also emerged than more than £5.3m is being spent each year by the five education boards on taxis taking children to school.
The biggest single bill is in the Southern Area Board, where £813,000 was spent in the financial year 2008/9, with the Western Board not far behind on a total of £533,000 and the North Eastern Area third highest on £415,000, the South Eastern spent £382,000 and in Belfast it was £152,000.
The figures came as a public debate over education funding kicked off in the aftermath of First Minister Peter Robinson’s attack on the province’s educational “apartheid”.
Financial foundation the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) urged “mature and constructive” discussion and appealed to participants to “step aside from political and emotional interests”.
As it held discussions yesterday with the IEF, the Alliance Party said it calculated immediate-term savings of up to £80m could be achieved through closer collaboration between schools.
Speaking as Chancellor George Osborne’s long-anticipated announcement on public spending over the next four years loomed closer, the party’s education spokesman Trevor Lunn said: “Through fuller rationalisation of the schools estate and other measures, we can potentially realise £300m of savings annually.
“This could be achieved through exploring further integration and sharing options within education in the longer term.
“The full potential for rationalisation within the schools estate is not a process that can feasibly be completed immediately.”
Assembly Education Committee chairman Mervyn Storey said the first stage needed to be “the recognition that there is a problem” followed by a “rational debate which would probably take years”.
He stated: “Peter Robinson did not use the phrase, but this is about integrating education as opposed to integrated education, which is still a very emotive phrase for many unionists.”
Mr Robinson’s initiative followed a report by economic consultants Oxford Economics last month which said the separate education sectors may be more willing to accept reform at a time of financial stringency.
In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, the report lead author Graeme Harrison said: “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.”
Baroness May Blood, of the IEF, which commissioned the report, 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.”