Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland schools' debt threat after £20m overspend

By Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland’s schools are “staring into the abyss”, a leading trade union official has claimed after it emerged the body which administers schools went £20m over budget in the last financial year.

The Education Authority (EA) exceeded its allocated budget in the last financial year. It comes as 22 additional primary schools moved into deficit last year compared to the previous year.

An estimated 400 schools will be in budget deficit this year — the highest ever. The EA has a budget of just over £1.8bn, of which around two-thirds goes to schools.

Its chief executive Gavin Boyd warned last December that there has been around a 10% real-terms reduction, of around £200m, in the education budget since 2010.

The Department of Education’s Permanent Secretary Derek Baker also warned late last year of increasing financial pressures on the sector.

He said the department had £24m less in cash than last year, but rising costs meant pressures of £105m, explaining the funding pressure was mainly due to rising pay, special educational needs and maintenance costs.

Ulster Unionist education spokesperson Rosemary Barton says she expects more schools will fall into deficit.

“There is a major funding crisis developing across Northern Ireland’s education system and this is resulting in record numbers of schools not being able to stay within their allocated budgets,” she said.

“I have now been informed that over the last year 22 additional primary schools moved into a deficit position compared to the year before and that, combined with dozens of other schools already in a similar position, has resulted in the Education Authority overspending by approximately £20m in 2017/18.

“The fact that the Department of Education’s annual budget from April 1, 2018, is £5m smaller than the one it ended last month with means that soon even more schools already struggling to balance the books will simply move into a debt position.”

Ms Barton said this is the second year in a row that the EA has overspent.

She said: “Our local education system faces annual increases in pay costs of approximately £60m.

“This has largely been passed on to school budgets in the previous three financial years, so most schools have already exhausted all reasonable cost reducing measures.

“I fear sooner rather than later this untenable situation of shrinking budgets and growing deficits will just come to a crashing halt resulting in swinging cuts to school budgets.”

Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT said the teacher unions are keeping a close eye on where the cuts will fall.

He said: “Schools in Northern Ireland are staring into the abyss. While teachers will still endeavour to educate the young people in front of them, it is now obvious that we are facing a catastrophe in our schools.”

The EA said: “The education sector is facing very significant financial challenges.

“The EA has highlighted the need for transformation of the education sector and this is recognised in the Department of Finance briefing document on the NI budgetary outlook 2018-20. The EA will continue to make the case for more resources for education and for transformation to ensure that our education system is fit for the 21st century.”

Belfast Telegraph

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