Schools facing multimillion-pound debts by end of March, says Minister

Stormont
Stormont

Schools across Northern Ireland are facing multimillion-pound debts by the end of March, the outgoing education minister has warned.

Peter Weir told Stormont's education committee he was unable to clarify how much the deficit would be, but it would be less than the £33 million previously predicted.

The DUP MLA said schools need a cash injection to "avoid pain", but the financial crisis has meant budgets have not been approved.

The Education Authority (EA) was accused of "snubbing" the committee after representatives failed to attend the meeting to give evidence.

In a letter to the committee the authority said Mr Weir would answer all questions, but he was unable to answer queries about the levels of deficits schools are facing or about EA plans to save £50 million.

Proposals drawn up by the EA are understood to include an increase in school meal costs and charges for school transport.

Mr Weir said he had not received the proposals, but free school transport could not be stopped without consultation and changes in legislation.

The committee's chairman, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, criticised the EA for "snubbing" the meeting, adding that the absence of EA officials was "very regrettable" given the level of uncertainty for schools and education services.

Due to the financial crisis no school budget has been approved for the 2017-18 financial year, but schools have been asked by the Education Department to make savings over the next three years.

Mr Weir said it was important for schools to look ahead, and while he could not give more assurance he was hopeful there would be an "injection" of funding "to avoid the sort of pain" they could feel in financial terms.

"There is a broad consensus among all of us involved in education that there is a need for the education budget to be moving up, albeit in difficult financial circumstances," he said.

He also criticised the EA for sending a "clumsy" letter to youth centres warning there was no indication that further funding would be available from April.

Around 80 youth workers met in Belfast on Monday to express their concerns about the future of the funding.

Mr Weir said that as he cannot set the 2017-18 budget no decision had been taken.

"I think the letter that was sent out, quite frankly, was probably quite clumsily written," he said.

Mr Weir added that youth workers' jobs were "safer than mine".