Schools in Northern Ireland: ‘Harrowing’ budgets to heavily impact pupils as ‘crisis’ in Covid and jobs continue, says NAHT

Head teachers have warned that newly released school budgets make “harrowing reading” and that “an unprecedented level of crisis” for some schools will heavily impact children’s education.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 4:38 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 5:43 pm

In February Education Minister Michelle McIlveen warned the assembly that the education budget was “already under significant pressure” and faces a shortfall of around £735 million over the next three financial years. “That is not rhetoric; it is reality,” she said during a debate on the Integrated Education Bill, which has since passed.

Today the director of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) in Northern Ireland, Dr Graham Gault, echoed those concerns after provisional budgets for individual schools across NI were released.

“The indicative financial allocations to schools announced today make harrowing reading for all of our school leaders,” he said. “With a decade of decimated budgets for schools behind us and the prospect of a further shortfall of three quarters of a billion pounds over the next three years, it is simply impossible for many of our schools to maintain basic services for our children without already enormous deficits spiralling further out of control.

NAHT NI director Graham Gault says the new school budgets will put some schools into an "unprecedented crisis". Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

One factor that will deepen the “financial crisis” dramatically, he said, is that covid-related costs, including for substitute teachers, will no longer be covered by additional funding; schools will be expected to cover such costs themselves. “This is a huge expense and will plunge some schools into an unprecedented level of crisis,” he added.

“This is extremely serious. Everyone must now realise that there is a very real likelihood that provision for children will be heavily impacted, perhaps to the extent that some classes will not be able to be maintained, because schools will simply be unable to afford to pay for additional staff to cover absence”.

“Hundreds of millions of pounds have been taken away from our schools with absolutely no corresponding reduction in services. How can we possibly expect to take so much resource away from our frontline services and expect everything to continue as normal? Everyone must now understand that this can no longer be sustained.

“As political candidates set out their political aspirations over the next few weeks, I implore everyone to ask the following question repeatedly: Exactly how will you ensure that funding is fully restored directly to our schools immediately? Do not accept any failure to answer this question.”

The Department of Education was invited to comment on the situation.

In a separate statement on Monday, Dr Gault warned that Covid is “still very prevalent across all of our schools” and that the associated “staffing crisis”, which was well publicised earlier this year, is “still at a critical level”.

“Many school leaders are finding it impossible to source substitute teachers and do not have the resources available within the school to keep all classes open for all children,” he said. The inevitable impact, in many cases, is short-term closure, he added. The Alliance Party and Sinn Fein, which hold the chair and deputy chair of the Stormont education committee, were invited to comment.

The Deputy Chair of the Stormont Education Committee, Pat Sheehan, said the British government and DUP are responsible.

“Over the course of the last two years the Education Committee received startling evidence in relation to the impact of budget cuts on our education system,” he said.

“Sinn Féin wants schools to have access to sustainable core budgets as agreed in New Decade New Approach.

“However, British Government cuts have stripped close to a quarter of a billion pounds in real terms out of the education budget from 2009-2019.

“Those savage austerity cuts by the British Government have left us in a situation whereby our education system here could face a funding shortfall of £600 million by 2025.

“The British Government must fund public services here properly and restore the block grant to pre austerity levels at a minimum so that we can invest in our children and young people, pay our teachers and school staff properly and provide an education system that delivers for all.

“The DUP also need to take responsibility, they need to end their blockage of a three year budget and commit to working with the rest of us in a restored Executive so that we can support and invest in our public services.”

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