Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland school leaders warn of 'budget crisis' impact

School pupils taking an exam
Image caption Many schools are facing "unprecedented financial pressures", the organisations said

Schools will see larger class sizes, fewer teachers and be able to offer fewer subjects due to rising costs, according to leaders of 80 of Northern Ireland's largest schools.

The warning comes in a joint statement from groups representing principals, governors and school finance managers.

Many schools are in a "critical situation", they say, facing budget deficits of as much as £500,000.

Education Minister John O'Dowd said his department's budget was challenging.

But he added that his priority had been to ensure minimum impact on the classroom.

Detrimental

The statement was issued by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the Governing Bodies Association, the Catholic Heads Association, the Association of Controlled Grammar Schools and the Voluntary Bursars Association.

They say school budgets are "already stretched to breaking point by successive cuts in recent years".

"Schools now face unprecedented financial pressures and will be running deficits of between £150,000 and £500,000," their statement continues.

"This will have a direct and significant detrimental effect on the quality of education currently offered to pupils."

Contributions

They claim the reason for what they call a "crisis" is that schools now have to meet a number of additional staff costs from their own budgets.

These include:

  • An increase of more than 4% in the amount schools have to pay into employee pensions, which is costing some schools over £100,000;
  • A 3.4% rise in employer National Insurance contributions, which means an average £70,000 increase in costs to schools;
  • Cost-of-living pay rises for staff of between 1% and 2.2% agreed by government and unions, which are not funded by the Department of Education (DE).

The organisations say schools are not being given extra money from the department to meet the rising costs.

"Together we call on our politicians to reconsider these plans and find the cost savings in administrative and other areas which will have less potential impact on the futures of Northern Ireland's pupils," their statement adds.

"Surely Northern Ireland's priority must be to invest in the future of our children."

Devastating

Pat McGuckian, the principal of Saint Patrick's High School in Keady, County Armagh, said the funding they had received had been reducing year-on-year.

"We have had to enforce financial redundancies as a direct result of the diminishing allocations," she said.

Image caption John O'Dowd said it had been "impossible" to protect the budget for schools

"We have reduced our teaching staff from 70 in 2010 to 62 in 2016."

"The news that the school has to pay for the increase in teachers' superannuation, paid by DE last year, and the 1% pay award is a devastating blow."

She said the most disadvantaged pupils would be hit directly by the cuts.

"We have now an additional budget to find of £140,000 which came out of a clear blue sky. I am in despair, our school is in despair."

Ms McGuckian said children with special educational needs might not get the assistive technology they need and others might not be able to study a specific A Level or Btec choice.

"John O'Dowd has always said the institutions do not come first, it's the pupils who come first.

"I'm not hearing that at the minute, I'm not hearing that pupils come first," she said.

Impossible

In response, Mr O'Dowd said he had consistently protected the schools budget as far as possible.

"As a result of reductions imposed by the Westminster government, the overall executive resource budget for 2016-17 has been reduced in real terms," he said.

"However, although the budget for education is challenging, the position is significantly better than previously anticipated.

"However, it has been impossible to fully protect the schools budget.

"As a result, there will be 0.8% reduction in the next financial year."

"I have also allocated three quarters of the additional £20m, announced by the finance minister and which will be made available to my department as part of the June 2016-17 monitoring round, to the aggregated schools budget."

The SDLP's education spokesperson, Dolores Kelly, criticised "John O'Dowd's failure to take action to address spiralling financial pressures on education budgets".

She said it was "right that school leaders have taken a stand against the onslaught of austerity that they have been strong-armed into".