Education review 2018: Financial pressures hit schools

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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2018 was a year in which the financial pressures facing education here were laid bare at Westminster.

With no government at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began an inquiry into education funding.

One principal told MPs that parents were donating toilet roll to his school due to budget cuts.

media captionBudget issues are affecting pupils, says school principal Graham Gault

The evidence also mounted up elsewhere.

Almost half of Northern Ireland's schools are set to end the financial year in the red.

And both the Education Authority (EA) and the Department of Education (DE) also highlighted the financial challenges they faced.

Many people mentioned the need for transformation of the education system as a long-term way to address the cash crisis.

However, while that will inevitably mean fewer schools in future it is unlikely to address short to medium term budget problems.

DE has also begun a review of home-to-school transport - which costs about £80m a year to provide - but any change in whether some parents will pay more for the service will be dependent on a minister being in place.

There is also still deadlock on a pay settlement for teachers which will schools will have fund at some point.

And the budget squeeze comes at a time when schools here are facing more demands.

The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI), for instance, highlighted the increasing need for mental health support for pupils.

The cost of maintaining school buildings has also skyrocketed.

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Amidst all of the financial gloom it is worth remembering, though, that a lot of good work goes on in education.

The most visible manifestation of this is the fact that GCSE and A-Level results rose again in 2018.

There are also many innovative approaches to learning taking place in schools, like a musical collaboration between primary schools and the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast.

'Unsustainable system'

Money also prompted higher education headlines this year - most notably when the union which represents many university staff took lengthy strike action in a dispute over pension changes.

Both Queen's University (QUB) and Ulster University (UU) continued to highlight what they felt was an unsustainable system of higher education funding.

However, in the absence of an economy minister there will be no major changes to either tuition fees or government subsidy.

The new vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Professor Ian Greer, took up post in the summer and has a full in-tray.

image captionThe old Queen's University students' union lies empty ahead of demolition and three-year rebuild project

It was also the end of an era at Queen's as the students' union building shut after half a century.

The union's services and officers have moved to a temporary home in nearby Elmwood Avenue until 2021, but the closure of the old building prompted a wave of nostalgia.

Transfer testing

According to the Department of Education, the proportion of school leavers in Northern Ireland going to university remained fairly constant at about 43%.

However, that means 57% of school leavers opted for further education, employment or training.

But any subsequent developments were subject to consultation and as the year ends no timescale for a single test has been set.

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