Northern Ireland

Education review 2019: A year of stretched school budgets

Photo of all kids putting hands up - stock photo Image copyright Getty/gpointstudio

It was another year when balance sheets were as much a part of education as books.

Throughout 2019 there were several high-profile warnings about stretched budgets in schools.

In July, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster said a lack of money was having a devastating impact on schools.

In the continuing absence of devolution, MPs had carried out an inquiry into education funding.

Their findings were echoed by the economic research body, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

It said Northern Ireland had faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over the past decade.

Image copyright Education Authority
Image caption Sara Long took up the post of Education Authority chief executive in April 2019

As the year ended, the new head of the Education Authority added her voice to the chorus.

Sara Long said no more could be done in some schools to save money.

In October, though, the authority itself came under fire from a Belfast primary school principal in an extraordinary letter.

Diane Dawson said she had struggled to get help for some pupils with special educational needs (SEN), and claimed the EA was in "meltdown."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The proportion of children with autism in Northern Ireland schools has almost trebled in a decade, according to the Department of Health

A number of parents also spoke out about the problems they had getting appropriate help for their children with autism and other special needs.

The proportion of children with autism in Northern Irish schools has almost trebled in a decade, according to the Department of Health.

There have been many calls for "transformation" of the education system to improve provision and to save money.

For instance, an Ulster University report said more mergers between small schools could achieve both broad goals.

But while the existing area planning process for schools continues, big strategic decisions cannot be taken without an education minister in place.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Four of the five teaching unions have been in a dispute over pay and workload with the department

As the year ended amid a flurry of political negotiations there was also no end in sight to the teachers' pay dispute.

Unions and management have reached a draft agreement, but it is unclear where the tens of millions of pounds needed to pay for it will come from.

It is sometimes easy to forget that a lot of good work still goes on in Northern Ireland's schools.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Northern Ireland teenagers performed above the global average in international tests in reading.

The most visible manifestation of that is A-level and GCSE results where the performance of pupils continues to improve, even if there are still concerns over the fact that children from relatively affluent backgrounds do better than disadvantaged children.

Teenagers in Northern Ireland also performed above the global average in international tests in reading.

Many schools go the extra mile to help newcomer and refugee pupils settle quickly.

Northern Ireland has resettled proportionately more Syrian refugees than any other part of the UK, and many are under 18.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMohammed picked up plenty of languages during his journey from Syria to Northern Ireland

One Syrian pupil in Belfast "went viral" due to his aptitude for languages.

Unfortunately a virus of a different kind struck a number of schools in November and some were forced to close due to the effects of the winter vomiting bug on pupils and staff.

In higher education, our two main universities continued to carry out cutting-edge research.

They are also vital to the Northern Ireland economy but they also made the headlines for other reasons.

Image copyright Albert Bridge
Image caption Belfast's Union Theological College is run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

Queen's University cut long-standing ties with a Presbyterian-run college due to a number of concerns raised by internal university reviews.

Ulster University, meanwhile, endured a difficult end to 2019.

An audit office report revealed that its new Belfast campus building was set to go over £100m over budget, while its vice-chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon announced he was leaving for a post in Australia.

Image caption Stranmillis University College is one of two teacher training colleges in Belfast

Meanwhile, Stranmillis and St Mary's University Colleges began working in partnership to ensure students training to be teachers in both institutions would be able to access the Certificate in Religious Education.

It is necessary to be employed as a teacher in a Catholic primary or nursery school.

Our schools, colleges and universities continue to innovate, but many in education will be following events at Stormont early in 2020 closely as significant change still relies on political decision-making.

More on this story