13.In this chapter we consider:
14.Northern Ireland’s school system enjoys a strong reputation for delivering a high standard of education. Performance continues to improve despite the challenges facing the sector in recent years. Education Authority figures show that the proportion of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C increased in every year between 2012–13 and 2016–17; the improvement was most marked in non-grammar schools, where the proportion rose from 67.2 per cent to 74.4 per cent.16 The proportion of pupils achieving three or more A*-C grades at A Level has also increased consistently over that period; again the figures show a significant improvement in non-grammar schools from 45.4 per cent to 55 per cent.17 We heard that Northern Ireland’s primary schools are among the best in the world according to international comparisons.18 Throughout the inquiry we heard consistent praise for the ability and expertise of school leaders and staff for continuing to deliver exceptional education in difficult circumstances.19 Witnesses’ concern was that resource pressures on the school system would put the quality of pupils’ education at risk.20
15.The school system in Northern Ireland is complex, comprising several sectors each with their own governance arrangements and ethos. At the primary level, the two largest sectors are Controlled and Catholic Maintained schools: Controlled schools are (with some exceptions) associated with Northern Ireland’s Protestant community and Catholic Maintained schools with the Catholic community. Although schools in both sectors have inclusive admissions policies, geographical factors and parental choice mean that in practice the large majority of pupils are drawn from one background. There are a smaller number of Integrated schools, including both Controlled and Grant Maintained Integrated institutions, as well as Irish Medium schools which teach their curriculum in the Irish language.
16.Secondary education includes each of the school types above, as well as Grammar schools which have a selective pupil intake. Grammars make up around a third of all secondary schools in Northern Ireland. Grammars fall into two categories, Controlled and Voluntary, with many of the latter being Catholic Grammars. Northern Ireland also has a number of Special Schools (for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) and a small number of fee-paying independent schools.
17.During our inquiry we frequently heard that there were too many schools in Northern Ireland, and that this led to duplication of provision and an inefficient use of resources. The Department of Education, the EA, and associated education bodies acknowledged that duplication was an issue, and the Department has a Sustainable Schools Policy and an Area Planning process aimed at supporting changes to education provision and the school estate.21 We examine Area Planning and the school estate in greater detail in Chapter 4 of this report.
18.The Department of Education is ultimately responsible for education policy and delivery in Northern Ireland. However, there are a number of arm’s-length bodies and sectoral representative organisations, some of which have a statutory basis or are in some way accountable to DE. The largest of these arm’s-length bodies is the Education Authority, which is directly responsible for the efficient and effective delivery of education and youth services. The EA was established by the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2014; previously its functions had been delivered by five regional Education and Library Boards (ELBs).22 The EA finances all Controlled schools as well as providing some of the funding for schools in other sectors.23 It is also the employing authority for teaching staff in the Controlled sector and for non-teaching staff in Catholic Maintained schools. The EA employs 43,000 people, making it the largest employer in Northern Ireland.24 The EA also leads on Area Planning and changes to the school estate, although final decision-making authority remains with DE. Other arm’s-length bodies accountable to DE include the Education and Training Inspectorate, which is the inspection body for schools, and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, which advises DE on the school curriculum, conducts and moderates exams and maintains qualification standards.
19.There are also organisations for specific school sectors, some of which are statutory bodies with specific responsibilities. For example, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has a statutory role as the employing authority for teaching staff in Catholic Maintained schools and advises on Area Planning with regard to those schools. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE), meanwhile, facilitates the development of Integrated schools and integrated education. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta promotes and supports Irish-medium education. Other organisations are non-statutory, but act as advocates or representatives for their sectors when dealing with DE and the EA. Examples include the Governing Bodies Association, which represents Voluntary Grammar schools, and the Controlled Schools Support Council, which is an advocacy body for schools in the Controlled sector.
20.The role of the Education Authority is crucial within the current education structure. The EA has: a budget of approximately £1.8 billion; funds over 1,000 schools; and is the managing authority for over 500 Controlled schools. It also takes the lead in implementing key strategic policies such as the school improvement policy Every School a Good School and Area Planning. It is the employing authority for teachers and staff in Controlled schools and non-teaching staff in Catholic Maintained schools, and is Northern Ireland’s biggest employer with 43,000 staff in total. It provides school transport and school meals and is responsible for assessing the needs of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and providing them with appropriate support.25 The EA is still a relatively new organisation, having been established formally in April 2015 through the amalgamation of five regional ELBs. Since then it has acquired new areas of responsibility: for example, in April 2017 the administration of the funding of Voluntary Grammar/Grant Maintained Integrated schools transferred from DE to the EA.26
21.During the years prior to the establishment of the EA there was debate around what the remit and powers of the organisation should be, and this contributed to a degree of uncertainty during its set-up and early years of operation. The Permanent Secretary of DE, Derek Baker, told us:
It is fair to say that the Education Authority probably had a difficult gestation and birth. From original concept to the creation of the body it took far too long and that was a direct consequence of political discussions about its role, its scope and its functions and the absence of political agreement. The five legacy Education and Library Boards died a death of 1,000 cuts during that period, and a lot of expertise, corporate experience and corporate knowledge was lost in the process [ … ] It had a very difficult job bringing what were five different processes together into a coherent regional service.27
22.The EA has overspent its block grant in every year since its creation. The Northern Ireland Audit Office reports that in 2017–18 this overspend was £16.6m, with £12.7m of that amount coming from Special Educational Needs.28 The EA set out some of the challenges it faced in trying to control costs:
Over 90% of the EA cost base is related to ongoing and unavoidable demand for policy, statute and contract based services and over 80% of costs relate to staff. This means that any further significant in year savings cannot be achieved without changes to policy, legislation or contracts and staffing which can take time and be costly. In addition, EA must provide for growing demand for statutory and other services, must meet statutory based timescales, and only has access to funding for voluntary redundancy (including Investing in the Teacher Workforce).29
The EA explained some of the steps they had taken to save money, including reducing staff numbers.30
23.A number of contributors to the inquiry told us there had been a loss of capacity and local expertise at the EA during the process of its transition from the ELBs. Dr Graham Gault, Principal of Maghaberry Primary School, told us “There has been a big loss of intellectual capacity and experience. While we have not lost any key areas of service, we have definitely lost capacity.”31 Witnesses attributed this to both a lack of funding and the recent reorganisation of the old ELBs into the EA. Barry Mulholland of the Controlled Schools Support Council told us “[The EA] has not the capacity, because it has not the budget. [ … ] There is just not enough money in the system at this time.”32 In addition, some witnesses told us that it was not always clear where responsibility lay for certain functions within the EA.33
24.We heard both positive and negative feedback from stakeholders about their relationship with the EA. Dr Gault described the staff he had worked with as “outstanding individuals working within what I believe is a broken system,”34 and Jo McColgan, Principal of Ashfield Boys’ High School said he had an “excellent relationship … with the SEN department.”35 Some of the participants at our engagement event, however, told us that the EA had become “more procedural,” and that previously strong local relationships had been disrupted.36 The trade unions and sectoral bodies we spoke to said that their relationship with senior EA officials remained good, but agreed that it was more difficult than before for schools and teachers to access support than had previously been the case.37
25.Several schools told us they were not clear about the EA’s vision for the education sector. One participant at our engagement event remarked that “we need a strategic vision. No-one is thinking about how money could be best spent,” while another described the EA’s vision as “a moveable feast.”38 Some said communication was the key issue. One contributor said that “The EA wants to move things forward, but they are not bringing schools with them. There is a lack of trust between people who are making decisions and those who implement them.”39 Other witnesses suggested that this was an issue that went beyond the EA. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, said that there was a general lack of consensus around the future of education.40
26.Some witnesses said that it was hard to scrutinise the EA’s spending because of a lack of publicly available information.41 The EA publishes a breakdown of its spending as part of its annual report, but witnesses said this did not contain the detail necessary to demonstrate whether it was offering value for money. Geri Cameron, the president of the National Association of Head Teachers Northern Ireland told us: “We want to be able to demonstrate that it is value for money—or it is not, and it is reviewed and changed—but we are not able to get that transparency.”42 She said that her union had submitted Freedom of Information requests seeking more detailed information about EA spending, but that the responses did not contain the detail needed to judge whether the EA was delivering effectively.43
27.A further concern related to the EA’s responsibility for overseeing schools’ management of their finances. We heard that the EA has limited powers to intervene or penalise poor budget management. The EA has the power to restrict or suspend a school’s delegated authority to manage its own budget.44 However, these sanctions have never been applied, and the Northern Ireland Audit Office concluded in its Financial Health of Schools report that “there are no real consequences for, or deterrents against, schools who do not undertake effective financial management of their budget.”45
28.The EA told us it had taken steps to address budget deficits. In January 2018 it rejected the budget plans of 632 schools, on the grounds that those schools were “unable to demonstrate they could live within their budget allocations for 2017–18.”46 However, EA officials said they were mindful of the challenging financial contest facing schools. The then Director of Education John Collings told us
One of the things we are saying to school leaders [ … ] is sometimes you can only do what you can do and sometimes enough is enough. It would be inappropriate, for example, to be challenging a school so hard that they had no other choice than to increase class sizes to 35 or 40 or beyond 40. That is not acceptable and we would not ask schools to do that.47
We also heard about the work the EA has done with schools to identify and work with schools whose finances are most at risk, and to help reduce costs where possible.48
29.Sir Robert Salisbury, Chair of the 2013 review of the Common Funding Formula, told us that during the review process some schools had shown “a fairly lax attitude to keeping in budget,” and that there had been “very little intervention from the then library boards.”49 The Salisbury Review recommended more proactive intervention where budgets were not being properly managed.50 However, the NIAO noted in its Financial Health of Schools report that despite the problem of deficits persisting sanction powers had not been used.51 The Department, in its most recent update on its response to the Salisbury Review, set out the work the EA had done to identify and support schools whose finances are at risk, but did not make any comment on the EA’s sanction powers.52
30.DE told us that the EA was due for its first quinquennial review in the next 12 months, and that it held regular accountability meetings at an official level.53 However, people outside the Department told us that it was difficult to measure the EA’s performance at the present time.54 Geri Cameron told us there was “no assessment of whether we have improved service delivery and whether we have saved any money,” and that when the EA was established “there was not any baseline assessment of what [it] should look like or did look like at that particular moment in time.”55
31.We heard concerns about the support provided to schools by the Education Authority following the amalgamation of the Education and Library Boards. Issues raised included a lack of staffing capacity and expertise, a lack of clarity around responsibilities within the organisation, and the EA’s limited oversight of schools’ financial management. The upcoming review of the Education Authority is timely, and will provide an opportunity to evaluate its work. Given the EA’s importance within the sector we expect the Department and the EA to take a proactive approach to addressing the concerns raised in this report. As part of its five year review of the Education Authority, the Department of Education should specifically examine: whether: the EA has sufficient resource and capacity to perform its functions; the EA’s services are delivering value for money when compared to the previous regional model; decision-making within the organisation is sufficiently transparent; the EA has sufficient powers to hold schools accountable for the way they manage their finances; the EA is making sufficient use of those powers. In responding to this report, the Department should set out the terms of reference for the review.
32.Some aspects of the EA’s work were frequently raised as causes of concern. Two areas stood out in particular: centralised procurement and Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) provision. We examine the issue of procurement below, and return to SEND to consider it in greater detail in Chapter 5 of this report.
33.The EA runs centralised procurement services for all Controlled and Maintained schools, covering both equipment and contracted services such as maintenance. Schools in the Voluntary Grammar and Grant Maintained Integrated sectors have greater financial independence, and are able to procure their own equipment and services rather than going through the EA. The EA is one of Northern Ireland’s six Centres of Procurement Expertise (CoPEs) which provide professional procurement services for a particular sector, and which were recently subject to a public sector-wide review. DE notes that the EA failed its CoPE accreditation in 2017–18.56 The review made seven recommendations for the EA to address:
The EA reports that all six of these seven recommendations deemed ‘Essential’ or ‘Critical’ have been addressed, while work is ongoing to address the one outstanding recommendation that the EA develop a training strategy to identify skills gaps among its staff.58
34.School principals gave numerous examples of goods which were more expensive to purchase through the central procurement process than elsewhere, but which they were nevertheless required to buy through the EA. Jo McColgan, Principal of Ashfield Boys High School, a Controlled school, said:
I needed to purchase lighting equipment for an A-level class. To go through the procurement list, it was £320. I was able to get the exact same piece of equipment with extras, through Amazon, for £54 but I was not allowed to buy it. I had to go through the list.
To give you another simple example, I needed a new washing machine for hospitality and home economics. To go through the procurement list it was £349. I was able to buy a better machine from a local well-known high street supplier at £190. Those two pieces alone would have had a saving of £425, but I am not allowed to do that. It gets worse. Ink cartridges for computers and printers I was able to get for £6,000 less than procurement.59
35.The cost of maintenance services was similarly high. A principal at our engagement event told us that “the cost of fixing a window is £30 for a local contractor, but £200 through the EA contractor.”60 In its recent report on the Financial Health of Schools, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reported similar concerns:
One school told us that it was able to carpet a classroom from parent/teacher funds for considerably less than the price paid for other classrooms via central procurement. Another school told us that it had arranged its own cleaning contract and halved the price of the EA contract, saving around £30,000.61
36.Some principals in Controlled and Maintained schools said they would like to have greater freedom to procure goods and services for themselves. Jo McColgan told us:
I know what my school needs. I know where those resources need to go [ … ] give us the autonomy to do that and we will make real savings.62
Principals from the Voluntary Grammar and Grant-Maintained Integrated Sectors said they benefited from being able to manage their own procurement. Deirdre Gillespie, Principal of St Mary’s Grammar, explained:
We are our own employing authority and therefore we have the autonomy to procure our own services and goods. I have worked in the system for a Controlled Grammar school where that was not the case, and I have certainly found having the autonomy to procure our own services and goods to be a much more flexible system, which allows savings to be incurred.63
37.Not all schools shared the same view however. The trade unions we spoke to suggested that decentralising procurement responsibilities would substantially increase schools’ workloads.64 Witnesses acknowledged that there were some areas of procurement where bulk purchasing or standardisation of a product or service were beneficial. Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT union gave the example of C2K, the IT network for Northern Ireland’s schools:
Every school in Northern Ireland is on the same managed network, which has large efficiencies in terms of purchasing power for the EA and for the transfer of information between schools. For example, if a teacher goes from one school to another, they keep the same email address. I can see the efficiencies that are there. You might say, ‘Well, schools might be able to buy their own system,’ but once you are down to a school with four or five teachers, putting in a server, putting in a network and paying for maintenance and upkeep, you are not necessarily going to get those savings. You suddenly then have a very fragmented system.65
This discussion was part of a wider debate around the proportion of funding—and associated responsibilities—allocated to schools, which we discuss in Chapter 3.
38.The Permanent Secretary told us some of the reasons why central procurement could be expensive:
The Education Authority has to enter into contracts and there is a whole raft of issues that may not occur to individual schools or individual principals around insurance, indemnity, compliance, and, dare I say it, EU public procurement legislation, which feeds through and is transposed into national legislation, which the Education Authority has to take account of.66
Reacting to some of the examples that had been shared with the Committee, however, he said that he had “heard enough of those stories to be concerned” and that the Department had begun a review of procurement.67 DE’s Finance Director Gary Fair told us that a Procurement Strategy for school maintenance work contracts was currently being drafted, with a view to appointing a new contractor in late 2020 or early 2021.68
39.We welcome the ongoing review into procurement, which was a priority concern for many of the Controlled and Maintained schools we spoke to. We believe there is scope for substantial savings in this area and expect that this review will allow these to be promptly realised. Once the review of procurement is complete, the Department should update this Committee (or the relevant Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly if it is constituted) with its findings and its plan for implementation.
16 Education Authority, Annual Report and Accounts for the Year Ended 31 March 2018, 8 April 2019, p 31
17 Education Authority, Annual Report and Accounts for the Year Ended 31 March 2018, 8 April 2019, p 31
19 Q11; Qq132–138; Q235; Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 6
22 Education Act (Northern Ireland) 2014, Section 1
23 Education Authority, Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2018, 8 April 2019, p 4
24 Education Authority, Annual Report and Accounts for the year ending 31 March 2018, 8 April 2019, p 4
26 Department of Education, Annual Report and Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2018, 3 July 2018, p 28
28 Northern Ireland Audit Office, Education Authority Annual Report and Accounts 2017–18: Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Northern Ireland Assembly, 11 April 2019, p 1
36 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 4
38 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 3
39 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 3
41 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 4
44 Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998), Article 55; Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, Article 5
45 Northern Ireland Audit Office, The Financial Health of Schools, 16 October 2018, p 27
46 BBC News, Budget plans refused for 632 NI schools, 24 January 2018
50 Department of Education, An Independent Review of the Common Funding Scheme, January 2013, p 48–51
51 Northern Ireland Audit Office, The Financial Health of Schools, 16 October 2018, p 27
52 Department of Education, Independent Review of the Common Funding Scheme: Update on recommendations at 30 September 2018, 14 March 2019, p 13
54 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064)
56 Department of Education, Annual Report and Accounts for the year ending 31 March 2018, 3 July 2019
60 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 4
61 Northern Ireland Audit Office, The Financial Health of Schools, 16 October 2018, p 35
64 Education Funding in Northern Ireland Engagement Event, 28 January 2019, Holy Cross College, Strabane (EDU0064), p 2; Q244
Published: 22 July 2019