NI schools fighting financial crisis with ‘hands tied behind backs’

A number of MLAs have called for urgent action to address a funding crisis in Northern Ireland schools
A number of MLAs have called for urgent action to address a funding crisis in Northern Ireland schools

Schools in Northern Ireland are fighting the ongoing financial crisis in education with their hands tied behind their backs, a DUP MLA has said.

Gordon Lyons was commenting on news that almost 100 schools have budget deficits so serious that they no longer meet key sustainability criteria.

Having analysed the 2018/2019 financial situation in around 1,000 schools, the Education Authority (EA) published figures showing 446 schools projected to be in the red this year, with 352 of the 446 experiencing a deficits increase since 2017/2018, the BBC has reported.

The East Antrim representative said the current situation “is not tolerable and is no longer sustainable”.

Mr Lyons said: “The lack of an Executive in place prevents any serious consideration of changes to the budget to provide schools with additional support, but it also prevents any reform to the education system which could also help schools. In effect, the [education] department, the Education Authority and schools are trying to cope with this situation with their hands tied behind their back.”

This year is the first time the EA has placed schools in a number of different categories, depending on their financial situation.

There are 97 with increasing deficits of more than 5% of their annual budget – a shortfall leaving those schools outside the criteria for sustainability.

Around 130 schools with similarly increasing deficits of more than 5% each year have been judged to be sustainable at present.

Ulster Unionist MLA Rosemary Barton said Secretary of State Karen Bradley “can no longer ignore the deepening crisis”, and added: “Her policy of doing nothing and hoping for the best isn’t working, so she either needs to get off the fence and give them a time-bound ultimatum on the establishment of a local Executive, or move now to appoint direct rule ministers.”

Chris Lyttle of Alliance has called for a review of education similar to the Bengoa report on the health service.

“Such a review outlining the need for reform and subsequent implementation is needed urgently if we are to halt the financial crisis on our schools,” Mr Lyttle said.

The EA is to appoint specialist staff to work with the 227 schools experiencing the greatest financial difficulties. However, it has pointed out that the budget categories are an aid to supporting the schools affected and “not a judgment on their financial management or stewardship”.

Previously the authority had warned that collectively schools in the province were set to overspend their 2018/2019 budgets by almost £33 million.

The NI Audit Office has said that school budgets have reduced by 10% in real terms over the previous five years.