Education Funding 2023 – Not A Happy New Year

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 5 January 2023
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Budget; Cost of Living Crisis

Just before the Christmas break ASCL NI President Graham Montgomery wrote to Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to express his dismay at the financial settlement for schools in 2022/23.

He pointed out that although the Government have allocated extra money to pay specifically for rising energy costs and already agreed incremental pay awards for teaching and non-teaching staff, schools face a real time cut of about 0.5% in their basic budget. To those outside the education sector who are struggling themselves with the cost- of- living crisis, it sounds like schools are getting special treatment with this extra money.

Although overall, the amount of money each school will have to spend in 2022-23 will go up by about 3%, with inflation currently at 11%, schools have been warned by The Department of Education that savings will have to be made.

Hard pressed school leaders who manage school budgets will be dismayed as they find themselves in exactly the same position as private households facing bills that they are struggling to pay – except on a much larger scale. Contingency funds that schools might once have held and relied on to weather unforeseen events have long since disappeared during a decade or more of gradual reduction in school budgets. Graham Montgomery has warned that this additional funding allocated for energy costs and incremental pay awards is actually offset by the reduction to the aggregated schools budget which therefore represents a significant real term cut overall and “leaves schools in an impossible position."  

There is also the long term problem namely that for many years Northern Ireland schools have been underfunded compared to the rest of the UK in terms of the money they are allocated for each pupil. Taken together with the latest cuts, this is likely to necessitate staffing reductions that will in turn lead to larger class sizes, reduced curriculum options and less support for students who need extra help.

While these potential reductions in the quality of service which schools provide may not cause the immediate crisis headlines like ambulances queuing outside A&E departments, there are real negative consequences for the pupils, staff and parents who make up our school communities. Take for example the plight of newly qualified teachers who increasingly schools depend on to fill vacancies which are advertised as temporary rather than permanent – which in better times they would have been. These young professionals can spend years in temporary positions, unable to find one of the dwindling numbers of permanent posts. The consequence for them can be that mortgages are hard to get as their income is not guaranteed. This makes starting a family and all that goes with it harder.

Larger class sizes affect both the teachers- who will be under greater strain to keep order and properly give the individual attention to underachieving children and the pupils who will be learning in a more difficult setting. Project and practical activities become problematic. Careful grading and monitoring of each child’s work is more demanding and discussion based lessons can be impossible.
ASCL - ASCL NI president writes to Secretary of State to express dismay over education funding

Back in October 2021 BBC Education Correspondent Robbie Meredith reported that according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), one of the UK's leading economic research institutes, Northern Ireland spends less on each school pupil's education than any other part of the UK.

The IFS stated that there had been a "remarkable squeeze on school resources over more than a decade".

Their analysis suggested that about £6,400 would be spent per pupil in Northern Ireland in 2021-22, compared to about £7,600 in Scotland.

The BBC also revealed figures from the Education Authority (EA) which show that almost half of schools (48%) in Northern Ireland were in budget deficit at the end of the 2020-21 financial year.

This is not a new problem as previous research published by the IFS in 2019 suggested that Northern Ireland had faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over a decade.

NI spends least in UK on each school pupil's education - BBC News

So why are things worse here? One reason is the rurality factor which means that rural communities are served with primary schools which are too small to be economically efficient and there are also huge school transport costs to allow secondary school age pupils from the countryside to access schools in the towns.  The BBC reported in 2018 that about a quarter of all pupils in Northern Ireland - 84,000 pupils, currently benefit from free home to school transport if they live more than three miles from their post-primary school or two miles from their primary school. This costs the Education Authority £81m per annum and this will rise by £7m a year in future given the cost of fuel now. Changes have been suggested and consultations carried out with parents about possible charging but it would require a minister in post to take such a decision.

School transport consultation finds support for charges - BBC News

Rationalising the school estate is another option of course, but recent school amalgamation proposals which would reduce spending have been met with vigorous opposition from both parents and the separate schools involved as it inevitably involves change and in some cases reduction in choice of school for pupils transferring from primary to secondary. Again, ministerial decisions would be required to implement these unpalatable choices.

The economic realities are now that we cannot afford the present health and education arrangements that we currently enjoy. Clearly something has to give and sadly the emerging chaos in hospitals this winter is the visible evidence that in the absence of decisions for change the system is breaking down. Some would argue that schools are now in a similar predicament too. So what is to be done? In these unprecedented times perhaps it is time to grasp a few nettles.

This article is correct at 05/01/2023

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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