Belfast Telegraph

Number of Northern Ireland schools in the red almost doubles in just three years

Concerns: Chris Currie
Concerns: Chris Currie
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

An Assembly member and former teacher has expressed alarm after it emerged that the number of schools running a financial deficit in Northern Ireland has almost doubled within a three year period.

The number of educational facilities operating within the red has risen from 239 in 2015/16 to 562 in 2018/19 with a combined debt of over £62m - an increase of 134%.

Meanwhile, the number of schools with surplus funds has fallen from 785 to just 451 in the same period.

Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton said it is the first time that more school accounts are in deficit than in surplus.

"This is an incredibly perilous situation and I fear that with the combined deficits now totalling a shocking £62.6m, the Education Authority has lost control of the situation," she warned.

"There has been a real-terms cut of £245m (13%) in the Department of Education's resource budget from 2010."

The Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman, who taught for over 30 years, said growing pupil numbers, increasing demand for special educational needs provision and growing costs each year have combined to create "a perfect storm" for local schools.

"From regularly talking to school principals across the country I know that they have cut costs in almost every area - class sizes have grown, extra-curricular activities have been cancelled and valued staff have unfortunately been let go," she said.

"Yet, despite all those actions, a record number of schools are now being left with no choice but to spend money that they simply do not have."

Principal of Killinchy Primary School, Chris Currie, said that the budget of his Co Down school is "spiralling out of control" with no end to the crisis in sight.

"By the end of this year our deficit will be £120,000. It will double to £250,000 the next year and then rise to £450,000," he said.

"I would need to make redundancies to make any more savings, but I'm already operating a skeleton staff.

"Further cuts would impact health and safety and send class numbers soaring to 45 pupils and we have made it clear we aren't prepared to inflict more cuts on children."

Mr Currie said he, like so many other principals, is in an "unwinnable situation" which the Department of Education knew was coming.

"The funding formula favours schools with higher numbers of pupils receiving free school meals," he said.

"I know schools with the same number of pupils than us, currently 351, which are in receipt of £200,000 more in funding.

"The department has created a them-and-us funding system which is extremely unfair.

"My entire budget is allocated to staffing costs which means my funding is gone before a light bulb is switched on."

He praised generous parents who helped raise thousands of pounds for school funds, but said efforts are now futile.

"They have been fantastic and raised as much as £6,000, but that's barely even a drop in the bucket at this point," he said.

Mrs Barton said she fears the situation is becoming irreversible as she called for extra funding to help relieve the pressure on schools.

A spokesperson for the Education Authority said: “We have been highlighting and acknowledging the financial challenges facing schools and the wider education sector for some time.

“We continue to work with schools to help them plan and manage their budgets, as well as advocating for more funding for schools and services to children and young people.”

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