The commitment of Stormont’s Finance Minister to education has been called into question after just £39m of a requested £116m was allocated to the department in the June budget monitoring round.
According to SDLP education spokesman Daniel McCrossan, the figure falls well short of what is required, with education having suffered years of cuts, compounded by the effects of Covid-19.
“You have to question whether or not education is a priority for Finance Minister Conor Murphy,” the West Tyrone MLA said.
“The Finance Minister had an opportunity to show that he was committed to helping schools get back on a level footing after an incredibly tough period for staff and pupils alike.
“Even before the coronavirus pandemic, schools were at breaking point and facing difficult decisions as they struggled to make ends meet.
“Over a decade ago, our schools suffered savage cuts, with almost 10% being wiped from their budgets. This deficit has never been restored and it has ensured we have the most underfunded schools on these islands.”
Mr McCrossan said the minister had a chance to show education was being made a priority but had failed to do so.
“He had the chance this week to take action, but he chose not to. All schools and parents want is a level playing field for our children. I will continue to lobby to ensure every child gets the education they deserve,” he added.
Covid grant money has been set aside by the Executive to enable the holding of summer schemes, with more than 400 schools committed to take part in July and August, but underlying funding issues remain.
The Executive previously pledged support for recommendations in the Fair Start education report that could cost up to £180million over the next five years.
Ulster University’s Unesco Education Centre earlier this year described the education system as weighed down by red tape, duplication and increasing and unnecessary costs.
A report from Auditor General Kieran Donnelly showed that despite more than £900 million being spent on addressing the educational gap between the haves and have-nots, Northern Ireland was no closer to bridging the divide.
A slight increase in funding for grant-aided schools was reported in April, with the overall figure handed out to keep the education system running amounting to almost £1.4billion.
But that figure came with a warning from Dr Graham Gault, president of the National Head Teachers’ Association in Northern Ireland.
“That can be welcomed, but it is many millions of pounds short of what is needed,” he said.
“A decade of withdrawing hundreds of millions of pounds from frontline education has created huge deficit positions for many schools which just get larger with each financial year.
“Aside from cumulative deficits from which most schools can never escape, the annual budgets allocated to schools are, in most cases, not enough to meet the basic spending needs of keeping a school open.
“Of current spending, between 90% and 97% is allocated to basic staffing provision alone.
“It doesn’t take much working out to imagine what is left for the resourcing of children’s learning and development after the essential costs are met.”
The Department of Finance said: “The 2021/22 Budget prioritised funding for children and young people, recognising the huge impact Covid has had on their wellbeing, with education receiving the second largest departmental allocation of £2.5 billion.
"In addition, education received the second highest allocation as part of June monitoring after health. All allocations were agreed collectively by all Executive ministers.”