Education funding is widely recognised as one of the most urgent public service challenges facing Northern Ireland today. While Northern Ireland’s schools are highly respected and deliver strong academic outcomes, there is growing concern across the sector that current funding levels are not sufficient to deliver the quality of education that pupils deserve and parents expect. The situation has been exacerbated by the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, without which it has not been possible for Northern Ireland to set policy priorities and allocate resources accordingly. Ultimately, it is Northern Ireland’s elected representatives who must make the changes the education sector so urgently requires.
In the absence of an Assembly to scrutinise this critical public service, we decided to hold our own inquiry into education funding in Northern Ireland. In our report we make recommendations for how the Northern Ireland Office and the Department of Education (Northern Ireland) can address the challenges facing education. Our key recommendations are:
We recommend that funding for education should increase in line with pupil numbers, to keep pace with the growing demand for school places. This reflects evidence we heard from the Department, the Education Authority, schools and others that school budgets had fallen in real terms at the same time as more children were joining the system.
Future budget allocations should reflect the increasing number of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) in the Northern Ireland system. We heard that the number of children being identified with SEND was rapidly increasing, and that this was the fastest-growing area of expenditure for the education sector.
The Common Funding Formula used to determine individual school budgets should be reviewed, as should the proportion of education funding that is delegated directly to schools. Witnesses identified several areas where the formula should be examined—such as the distribution between primary and post-primary schools and the weighting of funding for targeting social deprivation—to ensure that money was being directed where it could do the most good.
We saw there is a clear need to reduce duplication across the education sector and for consolidation of the school estate. Witnesses were clear that alongside the immediate funding pressures on education, the complicated structure of education in Northern Ireland meant that money was not being spent in the most efficient way. Achieving change will be challenging, and it is important that the wishes of communities and the demand that exists for different types of education in Northern Ireland are understood. We therefore propose that part of the public sector transformation fund included in the 2019–20 draft Northern Ireland Budget be used to run community consultations so that these important conversations can take place.
In the absence of an Assembly, secondary legislation which gives effect to reforms already passed at Stormont should be considered at Westminster. We saw that there was an agreed agenda for change in areas like Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) and that the only significant obstacles to implementing these reforms were procedural.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should also enable a new pay deal for Northern Ireland’s teachers to be approved in the absence of an Executive. This would correct the unfair situation teachers in Northern Ireland face at present, where their wage scales have remained stagnant as those of counterparts in other parts of the UK have risen. A provisional agreement on pay and conditions has reportedly been reached but still requires formal agreement.
The teachers and school leaders we spoke to described a school system on the brink of a crisis. We believe that these recommendations can address some of the urgent challenges facing Northern Ireland’s schools, while making progress towards the longer term goal of a sustainable school system that delivers an outstanding education for every child in Northern Ireland.
Published: 22 July 2019