Belfast Telegraph

Why we cannot afford to keep our schools apart

In the current harsh economic climate it is too expensive to maintain separate education systems and a radical rethink is needed, says Geraldine Tigchelaar

Northern Ireland, and all the United Kingdom, is facing the most dramatic cutback in public expenditure since the early 1980s. Reducing the national debt will require the Executive to make tough decisions on our future spending priorities, which could see up to £1bn being taken out of public expenditure over the next five years.

Those choices will be framed within the Autumn Comprehensive Spending Review. That these decisions will affect everyone here is beyond dispute. How ministers respond to this challenge will require maturity, collective responsibility and a willingness to engage in an open conversation with those upon whom the cuts will impact, including young people; economic history has shown recessions disproportionately impact on the life chances of the young.

The recession offers the Executive a unique opportunity to think radically about the delivery of public services. To think the unthinkable. It is self-evident that we will not be able to afford delivery on the basis of the status quo. Ministers need to overhaul existing delivery mechanisms to ensure that they meet need solely on the basis of economy, effectiveness and efficiency.

For good reasons, people in contested places such as Northern Ireland have historically been cautious about who they trust with providing education to their children. However, delivery mechanisms which reflect historic interests cannot be a deciding factor in 21st century Northern Ireland.

With regards to education it is our considered view that the existing structural configuration is not fit for purpose if measured against economy, effectiveness and efficiency. Enrolments are falling, there are around 50,000 empty school desks and the quality of our school estate is under significant pressure with an almost £300m backlog in maintenance work.

Further, the ongoing sterile debate over the transfer procedure abjectly fails to address the current financial meltdown. A more fundamental debate needs to be generated; one that asks what system of education can we really afford if we are to avoid redirecting finite resources away from acute care, early years and services for older people to support the currently grossly inflated multiple delivery mechanisms.

There is a growing body of economic and academic evidence that demonstrates the true cost of division in Northern Ireland and conversely how greater cohesion, sharing and integration can add considerable stimulus to economic growth. The first comprehensive report to look at the costs of maintaining segregated systems in Northern Ireland was produced for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) by the financial consultancy Deloitte in April 2007. The report put the estimated annual cost of segregation at around £1.5bn.

Nothing illustrates the cost of segregation more than the education system. The Deloitte report for the OFMDFM noted that, in terms of schools provision, 'greater collaboration across the schools sectors and consolidation within the schools estate could result in savings. If these were of the order of 1% to 5%, savings would be between £15.9m and £79.6m per annum'.

The Alliance Party has calculated a premium of £300m each year to maintain our sectoral education system.

It seems clear that what is required is a single system where children are educated together.

A system which enables schools to deliver quality education by ensuring that the schools receive the resources needed rather than rationing scarce resources among so many. The current school estate is a 'public good' and as such needs to be reconfigured to meet the needs of all children together.

In the light of the massive cuts looming over the public sector, we believe it is crucial to be aware of all relevant studies.

The Integrated Education Fund has commissioned independent research from Oxford Economics to help inform politicians and policy-makers as to the current state of profligacy in the educational structures here, and the potential for sensible savings.

Will the politicians rise to the challenge? The signs are not promising. The current stalemate with school ownership, sectoral bodies and a stalled educational reform programme has led to the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education forging ahead with their own radical plans for the restructuring of post-primary education.

The controlled sector is attempting to play catch up whilst the political and public debate still focuses on selection as opposed to the consequences of shoring up separation. The nightmare scenario, if unchecked, is that we will simply have larger single identity provision; ie: Catholic and non-Catholic schools.

The challenge to the Executive and Assembly is to seize the opportunity of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review - trialling unparalleled reductions in public spending - and consider the establishment of a single system of education which is shared by all children.

We are facing long term cuts which give us immense opportunities to rebase how we deliver education in a more competitive and diverse world.

We simply cannot afford to do anything less. And our children deserve the delivery to be educationally significant, not historically determined.


From Belfast Telegraph