Why are NI schools sitting on £50 million of unspent money?

Great story from Simon Doyle over at the Irish News. To quote:

It shows that of the north’s 814 primary schools, 617 ended 2014/15 with a budget surplus.

Christ the Redeemer in Lagmore, which received an annual budget of £1.8 million, ended the year more than £375,000 in the black. St Patrick’s PS in Armagh, which had a budget of £1.2m, ended with a surplus of about £342,000. Grange Park PS in Bangor’s surplus was £310,000 while Holy Trinity PS and St Kevin’s PS, both, in Belfast, also had more than £300,000 unspent at the end of the 2014/15 financial year.

For the second year in a row, St Colm’s High School in Twinbrook had a surplus of more than half a million pounds – this time the figure was £608,420.

When I first saw the headline I assumed the schools would be rich ones like Methody, St Annes etc. But the opposite is true, it is schools in some of the poorest areas of Northern Ireland. Ironically some of these schools would also get additional funding as they would have a large proportion of children getting free school meals. I also thought they may be saving for new buildings but it seems capital costs come out of a different budget.

Why would schools who have pupils from poor backgrounds not be spending every penny they have? These are exactly the children who need help to reduce inequality and give them opportunity. Off the top of my head could they not spend the money on:

  • Teachers
  • Classroom assistants
  • One on one tutoring
  • Breakfast clubs
  • After schools clubs
  • Day trips
  • Music/arts equipment
  • Sports equipment

You get the idea, there must be a thousand ways to spend the dosh.

Should the minister take back unspent money? Or would this just punish the prudent well run schools? Would it just lead to last minute shopping sprees by schools looking to blow their budgets?

I know quite a few of our readers are in education. Any idea why schools are not spending their budgets?

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  • whatif1984true

    It used to be that budget unspent was taken back at the end of the financial year. I remember HUGE orders being placed that had to be invoiced (and delivered) before the closing day of the school financial year.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely we need to factor in a crucial piece of information concerning is the surplus due to planning savings to pay for longer term projects? Which on the face of it seems wise. Must be rules governing this aspect?
    I remember the furore (in late 80s?) when Local Management of Schools was introduced. How well finances are handled has to be related to how fit teachers are to handle money. Even should they buy in specialist nonteachers, a Principals ability to budget is sure to have impact. .

  • Brian O’Neill

    I thought that as well but I asked a teacher and he said capital costs are a different budget. This is running costs.

  • Gingray

    “Teachers
    Classroom assistants”

    Has the public sector recruitment freeze impacted on schools at all?

  • Megatron

    As school governor I can tell you answer is fear over further cut backs which would impact on jobs incentivises hoarding…a bit like the general economy

  • Dan

    Given the indoctrination of impressionable children going on in Holy Cross school, one would be more concerned about the money that is already being spent in some schools.

  • Jollyraj

    Intriguing. Tell us more.

  • aquifer

    Great that schools get to keep what they save for later. Much better than public sector March madness when the roads get dug up to spend money before April, and when money is spent quickly to justify next year’s budget.

  • Brendan Heading

    Sounds like there is a straightforward solution – the Department should automatically claw back the surplus cash.

  • Megatron

    Agreed.

  • Megatron

    Probably should allow a small surplus to ensure schools arent targeting zero cash at the end of year as that would inevitably lead to some schools in deficit. Not sure of right number – maybe 5% of overall school budget or thereabouts.

  • barnshee

    Easy– Sinn Fein activist organise pro 1916 event in school at taxpayers expense

  • John Collins

    The teacher concerned also explained that WW1 and the Queen visit to Ireland were also dealt with in the class but why let a bit of balance interfere with a good yarn.

  • barnshee

    The focus of the event was celebration of 1916 (90+%) and Sinn Fein Activist ? -1912 -The Covenant passed unnoticed-Usual pat on the back from BBC NI?

  • John Collins

    Well Barnshee, the main problem when I was at national school was that we were taught history from one perspective. I felt that the teacher on the programme emphasised that the history of what one might describe as ‘the other side’ of the community, had also been covered. From some thing you wrote before I would assume you are, like myself, in your mid sixties. Were you taught anything about the Easter Rebellion in your school days, because I was certainly never given any information on the history of the Protestant people, north or south. I felt that that man today had made a fair effort to cover both sides. BTW are you sure the Covenant went unnoticed?.

  • Jollyraj

    Sure what do Sinn Fein have to do with 1916?

  • Reader

    Brian O’Neill: Should the minister take back unspent money? Or would this just punish the prudent well run schools? Would it just lead to last minute shopping sprees by schools looking to blow their budgets?
    I have savings. They aren’t being held over for capital projects, therefore I obviously don’t need the money. The government should take the savings off me and give them to someone on the same income as me who is in debt.

  • John Collins

    Agreed absolutely.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Reading your comment I’m reminded of NI’s poor literacy. http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/school-system-slammed-as-its-revealed-two-in-five-pupils-leave-without-the-basics-in-english-or-maths-34503236.html

    Instead of habitually forcing your agenda, you might be better showing the investment in your education e.g. writing the Queen’s English.

  • barnshee

    “Instead of habitually forcing your agenda, you might be better showing the investment in your education e.g. writing the Queen’s English.”
    I don`t waste excessive time on structure on a blog

    Anything you don`t understand in my comment?

  • barnshee

    ” I felt that the teacher on the programme emphasised that the history of what one might describe as ‘the other side’ of the community, had also been covered. From some thing you wrote before I would assume you are, like myself, in your mid sixties. Were you taught anything about the Easter Rebellion in your school days, ”

    I must have watched a different programme- the only thing missing was a parade in pseudo uniforms (with associated weapons.) then when challenged, a side comment about the “queen” appeared.

    History where I was taught included the ” Irish Rebellions ” the 1640`s and 1787/8 and 1916 were referenced. (there was a guy in my class who had an ancestor hanged for participation in 1797/98) –so yea I was taught about — amongst others– the Easter Rebellion

  • the keep

    The school should have more sense than do this kind of event if a state school had done a play which portrays the 1912 gun running event the very same member of staff would be up in arms and doing a blog entry here on the matter.

  • barnshee

    Time they did with extended study of IRA 1922-2012

  • Reader

    “capital costs” are not the same as “longer term projects”
    Buying a minibus might be a capital cost, running it would be a longer term project.
    Taking on an extra classroom assistant for a year so that the other CAs can be sent on some training courses (also costly) is a longer term project, not a capital cost.
    A head teacher might be aware of additional costs coming with a new batch of SEN pupils in the forthcoming year, or just want to have a bit of cash carried forward to deal with the unexpected:
    “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
    Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”

  • Jollyraj

    Really?? Sooner we get a normal integrated school system the better

  • barnshee

    “I have savings. They aren’t being held over for capital projects, therefore I obviously don’t need the money. The government should take the savings off me and give them to someone on the same income as me who is in debt.”

    The government gave you money YOU SAID (school budget) you needed to spend on education You did not spend it all.
    Your budget was wrong? inadequately constructed ?
    Give the money back Sack those responsible for the budget

  • Reader

    In my other post on this topic I pointed out several simple examples where it makes a lot of sense for school management to have money left over at the end of a year. Those aren’t examples of bad management – they are examples of good management, or just prudence. If the surplus accumulates year after year after year then there is a problem, but there is no indication of that here. I think it makes a lot of sense for the management of a school to plan over two or three years, not just one – especially if they can see cuts coming down the line!
    As for the construction of a school budget – isn’t it done by formula, not by a bid process? There is no evidence that anyone was incompetent.

  • John Collins

    How would that work in practice. Some years ago in the South when various department in Health Boards returned money ‘unspent’ their actual allocation was cut the following year, while those who had no unspent money received the same allocation.

  • John Collins

    Reader
    I thought running costs went under the ‘current expenditure’ heading and was separate from ‘capital expenditure’

  • John Collins

    Well maybe not. I would sack those who failed to live within their budget first and then look at those who might have applied prudent management and thus underspend their budget secondly.. Remember the parable of the man who was given the ten talents.

  • John Collins

    Well on the last sentence I to some extent agree about BBC NI. I noticed during the past week that the farmers interviewed for the programme on the issue of Bretix seemed to be from the Nationalist side of the community, as were the two schools featured on Newsline. And of course the vicious interview, or was that an interrogation, of Basil McCrea was way over the top. Shocking stuff altogether.

  • John Collins

    Jollyraj.
    Why, OH why would want something like that. In half a generation 80% of the nonsensical myths expressed on Slugger would disappear. Sure the World would not be the same at all. You should be reprimanded sometime soon for talking sense.

  • Reader

    John – precisely. I was addressing Brian’s assumption that when Granni said “longer term projects” that was a synonym for “Capital costs”. So, I keep on giving examples of longer term projects that wouldn’t count as capital costs.
    And to be frank, I wouldn’t regard someone who budgeted for only 12 months at a time as being particularly competent.

  • Brendan Heading

    That sounds like the right approach to me. If they’re returning unspent money, surely that means the allocation was too high and must be cut. Every spending decision taken by the boards should be properly justified.

  • Dan

    Interesting to hear Slugger commentator Donnelly refuse to condemn the IRA chanting and cheerleading that goes on in the grounds of his school during the Ardoyne festival.
    McCausland exposed him massively just now on Nolan, and Donnelly knew it