Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland schools budget crisis deepens - Westminster urged to act

By Mark Bain

Schools in Northern Ireland have been told they will have to live within their shrinking budgets - despite a warning from head teachers that the current financial situation is unworkable.

Several school principals, accompanied by SDLP Daniel McCrossan MLA, recently met with the permanent secretary at the Department of Education, Derek Baker, to voice their concerns ahead of the new school term.

Geri Cameron, the head of Loughshore Educational Centre and president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in NI, said head teachers here are already operating firm financial management.

She warned that unless there is a major reform of the current system, the ramifications may be felt for generations.

"We are well aware that the department is facing significant pressures and NAHT has been campaigning for more funding for the overall education budget. However such pressures could be eased if funding was more effectively targeted towards front line services rather than central administration," she said.

She warned schools are being forced to cut class sizes, narrow curriculum choices and make key staff redundant, the ramifications of which "may be felt for generations".

"In contrast to the rest of the UK, where 2-10 per cent is retained at centre, schools in Northern Ireland only receive a maximum of 59 per cent of the overall education budget directly," she added.

"Spending on pre-school, primary and secondary education per pupil is 46 per cent higher in Scotland, 18 per cent higher in England and 31 per cent higher in Wales.

"The recently launched Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Inquiry into education funding will partly look at how funding can be most effectively deployed. In the absence of democratic oversight in Northern Ireland we will be urging Westminster MPs to instigate immediate reform of the current system to ensure more funding can go directly to schools.

"This must be a top down process driven by the highest level of government. The burden cannot solely be placed on schools, those in power must take responsibility or children and young people will suffer immeasurably."

Mr McCrossan said that at this time last year a £100m black hole was revealed in the education budget.

"That hole is now only partially plugged with cuts to schools budgets across the North becoming a mainstay," he said.

"This cannot continue and schools and their principals can no longer be expected to balance their books and provide the same service.

"Schools are getting less money per child, special needs provision is not delivering and extra-curricular activities have halted.

"Education here is broken, it is at a cliff-edge and about to plunge into the unknown."

Mr McCrossan added: "There is a clear consensus that the show can no longer go on, especially with a politics vacuum in having no functioning Assembly.

"I have written to the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, to urge intervention for immediate reconvening of talks here to tackle this problem and many more head on."

The Department of Education said it was well aware of the financial pressures facing schools, but warned difficult decisions would have to be taken.

"It is recognised that in the longer term the education sector requires significant and radical transformation if it is to be put on a sustainable financial footing," a spokesperson said.

Belfast Telegraph

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