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Education: This is not just about cuts, it's about investing in our future

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No cuts: Let's protect education

No cuts: Let's protect education

No cuts: Let's protect education

Reported budget cuts of some £850m - £1 in every £10 - will have a devastating impact on Northern Ireland. Nobody envies Simon Hamilton his task of balancing the books, but if cutbacks are not handled strategically, our most vulnerable will suffer.

The Executive paper remains to be agreed. Nor is it clear what conditions attach to the Exchequer's £100m "bailout".

Faced with cuts on this scale, we need a transparent, adult debate, engaging the whole society. Hard choices are required to generate additional revenue and to mitigate cuts. Is now the time to remove the rates cap on larger properties? Why should small householders pay 100% of their rates, while those in houses valued at £800k pay less? Removing the rates cap would dampen damaging housing speculation in favour of homes for need.

What about water? The trade union campaign against water charges was more sophisticated than merely "Can't Pay, Won't Pay".

Welsh Water is owned by Glas Cymru, a single-purpose company with no shareholders, run solely for the benefit of customers - reducing Welsh Water's asset financing, the industry's single biggest cost.

By adopting Glas Cymru's governance model, there would be no impediment to an independent assessment of systemic water costs - then charged, progressively, through the rates.

The Nipsa union has undertaken such an estimate, assisted by industry experts. Queen's University's Professor Paddy Hillyard has undertaken detailed work on how best to protect the disadvantaged.

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Kissing goodbye to water privatisation is the stick for Executive parties, with the carrot of additional revenue raised through the rates.

Another budgetary side-effect is that the proposed £400m "giveaway" of corporation tax - a measure with no social clauses attached and which will not guarantee even one job - is surely a dead letter. Neither can the "costs of division", estimated at £1.5bn, be exempt. Reducing segregation costs should be central to the budget.

For instance, we have five providers of teacher training. The recent Aspiring to Excellence report of Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg sets out four options to tackle undue duplication. Politicians must bite the bullet on this and other "cost of division" waste.

The principle of "invest to save" should run through the budget narrative. The UK "tax gap" of tax evaded, avoided and uncollected is a staggering £120bn.

Another measure would be to debar firms which practise and advise on aggressive tax avoidance from tendering for Government contracts, as suggested by Margaret Hodge MP. With the British in the talks, why not a Northern Ireland tax-compliance pilot?

Within education, let's protect special education, Early Years expenditure, and teaching and learning generally.

However, in current circumstances, blanket protection for education is a big ask.

Let's save on unproductive, overwrought accountability systems. With school budgets relatively protected, are we comfortable that pupils, aged 16-18, get grammar school places, while less-advantaged 16-18-year-olds cannot secure places on the excellent, groundbreaking, system of apprenticeships? I'm not.

Hard choices are required to raise revenue, not just cut. We must tackle the cost of division. We must invest to save and protect our most vulnerable.

The trade union movement, for one, will meet the challenges with these in mind.

  • Mark Langhammer is director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The Readers' Editor is away

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