Balancing Devolved Autonomy and Centralised Financial Control in Education

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 19 August 2016
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Cassidy’s Comments is a new series of articles on education for Legal-Island which will be written especially for school leaders by former principal and ASCL Regional Officer Frank Cassidy.

During his time representing the interests of head teachers and school leaders, he has acquired experience of both the problems facing schools and the perspective of education administrators, politicians and teaching unions. Frank will offer an independent, informed view of current educational issues and offer practical advice and suggestions on school management issues.

In his first article, Frank discusses school budgets and threats to NI schools' positions in relation to academic excellence.

Frank writes:

This is my first newsletter for Legal-Island and I am delighted to have been asked to follow in the footsteps of the truly eloquent John Stevenson, whose writings I have admired and followed with great interest for many years. As a former principal like John, I continue to have a deep interest in schools and the education system and my most recent work as Regional Officer for ASCL has confirmed my admiration for the dedication and commitment of the leaders of our schools.

While politicians duck the hard decisions like rationalising our fragmented, expensive school estate and civil servants guard the status quo and their respective fiefdoms, schools leaders are left to make it all work with shrinking budgets, assertive unions and inadequate powers to implement improvement strategies.

In the forefront of everyone’s mind are the new financial realities of dramatically reduced school budgets. It has long been a source of concern in Northern Ireland that the global education budget here is top sliced by 41% before any money actually reaches schools. Looking enviously at other parts of the UK, school leaders see that figure at a much lower level there, with often over 80% of education monies going directly to the classroom.

So why is there such a difference between them and us and can anything be done about it? Administrators point to key differences between ourselves and other regions as a justification for this centrally organised spending. Probably top of the list is the huge school transport cost and the free travel for pupils to their nearest suitable school. Many schools outside the major urban areas could not survive without this support and indeed to remove it would further depopulate rural areas already suffering from the out-migration of young people in search of work in the cities and abroad. Special needs entitlement is the other big area of central spending. As a caring society, it is equally unacceptable to reduce the provision for the most vulnerable of our children.

So how can this circle be squared? We must surely return to a search for the correct balance of devolved autonomy versus centralised financial control in education. Many smaller schools understandably feel the need for the Human Relations and Legal Services support provided by the former Education and Library Boards and CCMS. Conversely, larger voluntary schools have a long tradition and high levels of competence in organising these things for themselves. The potential for Area Learning Communities to share resources and provision between schools is still underdeveloped, as are the links between the Further Education Colleges and schools. Examples of successful good practice abound and surely it must be possible to build on this?

The separation of jurisdictions between the Department of Education and The Department for Education and Learning (not enclosed within the Department for the Economy), with its focus on FE, has not made this any easier. If we are to put in place the best possible range of opportunities for our young people then cooperation on vocational and academic pathways must be a major priority.

This is the point in the school year, when A-level and GCSE results hit the headlines and the television news programmes jostle with each other to show delighted pupils opening their envelopes. It makes me remember my time in school and the individual stories of pupils and the hopes and dreams of parents who had entrusted them to us. The work and skill of the teachers in our schools to take pupils, particularly those pupils who struggled, to that level of success, remains a source of pride. Reporters talk once again of the excellence of Northern Ireland’s schools – scoring 79% A* - C, compared to other jurisdictions. Recent controversies over whether or not we should follow changes to GCSEs brought in by Michael Gove are now, like himself, consigned to history.

During this recent hiatus over GCSE grading systems, Education Officials and Minister John O'Dowd appeared deaf to the arguments from school leaders about the need to safeguard our current successful market leader position nationally and they instead chose to follow a locally orientated approach. The direction of travel of qualifications in England is about a recalibration of standards, increase in content, better preparation for A Level and Higher Education and restoration of the credibility of the GCSE brand with employers and universities.

Listening to Andrew Hall Director of AQA, it became clear that the new 9-1 grading system and a pass mark of grade 5 would soon become the nationally recognised GCSE expectation from all quarters. It seemed unthinkable that Northern Ireland would place its pupil success story in jeopardy by restricting schools to a separate Northern Ireland GCSE system where the current C grade pass would equate only to a grade 4 in a new reformed national qualifications marketplace. With the May Assembly elections, came a change of Education Minister and a welcome reversal of this earlier GCSE decision.

The instinctive centralisation imperative which motivates education administrators can sometimes reduce system costs but it can also threaten the freedom and autonomy of schools to make decisions in the best interests of our young people. This GCSE issue was a perfect example and hopefully, in years to come, we will continue to see news footage of our pupils celebrating their success and topping the charts.

The charts, of course, are also called performance tables and in spite of efforts by the Department of Education to get rid of them, they appear thanks to “freedom of Information”, without fail in the Belfast Telegraph and Irish News following on from the examination results season. The language coming out of the new Education Authority is long on greater accountability for Heads but short on measures to help them to act effectively to secure improved performance and the expectations of inspection.

Attempts to build in fair consideration of pupil range of ability and the actual value schools add when results are compared have predictably proved difficult. Let us celebrate with our pupils and heave a collective sigh of relief that we still have the freedom to give them the start in life which they deserve.

Legal-Island would like to thank Frank Cassidy  for the content of this article. The content and comments are entirely those of Frank Cassidy and do not necessarily reflect the views of Legal-Island.


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This article is correct at 19/08/2016

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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