Northern Ireland

NI schools and colleges fear thousands of job cuts

2014 has been a busy year for education with no sign of a let up in financial problems. Events in the last six months are likely to have a knock-on effect in 2015.

Cuts, whether real, proposed, or actual, were the central theme for education in 2014.

The year began with a disappointment for 23 rural schools, which were sharing 10 teachers.

Protestant and Catholic pupils were able to share classes but the scheme's funding from charities ran out.

Image caption Mary O'Kane from St Brigid's primary school in Mayogall was "disappointed" at closure of the teacher share scheme

The principal of one of the schools, St Brigid's primary in Mayogall, County Londonderry, Mary O'Kane said: "I think it is very disappointing, I know there are priorities in budgets but we would dearly have loved to continue this scheme."

A revamp of the way the government shares out school budgets caused major worries for the losers and celebration for the winners, however in February came a reprieve for schools which were earmarked for a reduction, and a promise that none would lose out.

Sinn Féin's Pat Sheehan, who sits on the Stormont education committee, gave a commitment on behalf of the Sinn Féin Education Minister, John O'Dowd, that if any school did end up losing money, he would stand with other politicians on the picket line.

Reprieve

The reprieve was good news for St Colman's Primary in Lambeg, County Antrim, which feared a cut of more than £40,000.

Principal Gerry McVeigh paid tribute to the minister: "I think this is the day to give him and his officials credit, they have listened."

However, the end of the year has brought dire predictions from the department of education about how it may have to trim its budget.

Image caption Cuts could see a loss of 1,000 teaching posts.

Head of Finance Trevor Connolly revealed that 1,000 teacher posts and at least 1,500 non-teaching jobs could go.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) was horrified.

Its president, Janet Williamson, said some principals were defiantly declaring they could not implement the cuts which would be needed, and others said it was the final straw, and were considering leaving the job.

While schools could suffer, they have the advantage of a degree of budget protection; not so universities and colleges.

Further education is predicted to lose 16,000 student places and 500 jobs, while universities risk having to cut local student intake by 1,000.

Image caption There could be fewer new students at NI's universities in future.

The vice chancellors of both of Northern Ireland's universities have complained.

Professor Richard Barnett from the University of Ulster said they could not make cuts without affecting the quality of education.

"That means we would have to take in fewer students and that would be a cut in the future of young people," he warned.

The worst-case scenario is being painted by the department, but tempered by some reassurance from the minister, Stephen Farry, that all is not yet lost.

However, even if the cuts are overestimated, education at all levels is likely to suffer in 2015.

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