Death by a thousand cuts or education reform – the crunch at last

The paper “Developing the Case for Shared Education” by the consultancy Oxford Economics argues convincingly that the Executive should turn the ill wind of the spending  cuts into an opportunity to reform education and increase opportunities for all, rather than suffer death by 1000 cuts. The paper is available from the Integrated Education Fund here.

Oxford Economics are careful not simply to embrace the single solution of integration as such. Instead, they update the well known arguments for ” sharing” which in theory are agreed Assembly policy. Sharing is not a panacea but a valid first step which needs further exploration, as I’ve long  argued.

As well behaved economists do, they tip-toe round the political analysis, Assembly deadlock over 11 plus selection, separate Catholic and Protestant schools and the sectarian demographic arguments which can favour an integrated school to halt Protestant flight in some rural areas. Yet it’s an awareness of these themes that makes the analysis all the more compelling. What follows is an edited version.

Why does NI need to think innovatively?

Assuming a relatively sharp reduction in the education budget

  • There will still be the same level of pupil ‘demand’ (if anything demand for primary places will rise given the lagged effect of the recent jump in births)
  • Will / can school building projects be halted? Over the next 10 years there was a strategy by DE for £3.6bn to be invested in the school estate
  • School estate maintenance backlog has risen to £292m according to the Audit Office, of which £100m is for essential maintenance where there are health & safety concerns – will this be cut? Also what of environmental and accessibility legislation?
  • What scope for large-scale savings in non-front line expenditure areas – management & administration? When will ESA be fully operational?
  • Is it possible to spare front-line services, teacher numbers and salary levels?

But recall the education budget has risen significantly over the last 5-10 years.

  • Is the current system of provision really as efficient as it could be?
  • How far has rationalisation gone?
  • Does NI still have too many schools in total and too many small schools?
    • 57% of primary schools are in rural areas but account for only 36% of primary pupils. Is it acceptable to continue to fund schools with excess capacity and spread cuts across all schools?

Could the public finances crisis be the catalyst for action and acceptance that the status quo is no longer affordable, never mind optimal?

  • The ‘Entitlement Framework’ states that all Key Stage 4 and post-16 pupils should have the opportunity to avail of 24-27 subjects
  • What is the likelihood of all schools meeting this requirement under the current system?
  • How realistic to achieve for smaller schools?
  • Remember quality and specialisation of teachers is a finite pool, e.g. Mandarin teachers
  • Inevitable trade off between accessibility and equality of opportunity – what matters more?

NI economy becoming / needs to become more global – increasingly important that NI benchmarks itself.

Regard the cuts as partly an opportunity

  • Definition of  shared education needed
  • Current ‘sharing’ opportunities underexploited
  • Favourable policy towards shared education … in theory
  • Benefits greater sharing could bring
  • Public support for shared education?
  • But sharing is not without its risks and downsides. Remember shared education just one option.  Definitions include 

    •  An approach to education where schools and teachers deliver education services to local communities in a collaborative and joined-up manner to ensure efficient service delivery
    • Shared common core-lessons and teaching staff
    • Collaborative governance arrangements
    • Achieving economies of scale through the amalgamation of schools
    • Shared community or village schools/integrated schools
    • Can help to co-ordinate the delivery of education in local areas
    • Strengthen local communities through retaining the delivery of education within local areas and linking to community centres

    But sharing is still new and unfamiliar. It is part of official policy – but mainly in theory only. However, the practical benefits are clear.

    • A n innovative delivery solution to the fiscal crunch – reduce the risk of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ scenario?
    • A form of area-based planning in practice – reduce unhealthy competition between schools in the same localities
    • Address inefficiencies and excess capacity in the current system
    • Opportunity to re-orientate provision towards tomorrow’s demand
    • Support realisation of the Entitlement Framework
    • Ensure quality of teaching
    • Integrated form of shared education – Shared Future agenda
    • The cost of the divide. Deloitte identified education as one element of the wider ‘cost of the divide’

     Would the public support a move towards more sharing?

     According to a Millward Brown poll in 2008, 79% support sharing. and 43% would prefer integration 

    Remember the potential alternative – ‘death by a thousand cuts’ But  sharing is not without its risks and downsides.

    Is the concept of shared education worth exploring further?

    What would it say about Northern Ireland, especially in these tough fiscal times, if the concept was not explored further – to the NI electorate, the Coalition Government, the Coalition Government and internationally?

     (My answer to that is, sadly NI seldom cares what the rest of the world thinks and positively enjoys defying it even at its own expense. As in educational reform?)

     If yes, what next? Tough times but innovate by example.  

    • Clearly reducing education ‘divide costs’ can contribute to the overall objective of becoming a more fiscally sustainable region
    • … both directly (e.g. education costs) and indirectly (e.g. positive spillover to reducing community relations, policing costs etc)
    • Remember our education system is our choice which we pay for.
    • Clearly tough funding times ahead and already a maintenance and capital backlog
    • Is the Executive prepared to continue to fund 1,100+ schools and a choice of schools on a denominational basis from a potentially shrinking funding pot?
    • Our choice, no one else’s
    • Important to have the debate on provision models, costs and impact, whilst there is appreciation today of fiscal constraints, and given the fiscal squeeze could last for 2 parliaments.

    Shared education just one option for consideration, UK considering others

  • Ultimately the goal must remain efficient, high quality and fair provision for our children today and tomorrow.
  • How might we move  forward from the scoping exercise of this paper?

  • Consider alternative education delivery options
  • Comprehensive analysis – viability of existing provision, fiscal costing and wider impact analysis
  • Wide-ranging and in-depth consultations managed by DE, DFP, ESA, education & library boards, CCMS, SIB etc, perhaps titled ‘Study into the viability and impact of alternate primary and post-primary education delivery options’
  • Best practice exemplar for other Government Departments of how to be innovative and develop a local solution in difficult funding times. To quote from NICVA “tough times, smart solutions”
  • What other options are ‘on the table’ for consideration?

    • UK push for more independence – parents, teachers and charities setting up their own schools
    • Re-consider ‘free schools’?
    • Better a local than a national solution?
    • Looking in detail at shared education possibilities may just be one of the options to consider – not a radical shift in policy until a final decision is taken How much savings could really be generated?
    • Potential large up-front capital requirements if significant new build required – savings only in long-run but funding cuts are happening now.
    • What if sharing is only done on a sectoral as opposed to local basis – reduced accessibility, entrench segregated provision? ( unintended consequence).
    • Shared education will not necessarily improve attainment, this requires other reforms
    • Reduced flexibility of provision in future, especially if unforeseen demographic changes.
    • Some level of local competition between schools is healthy
    • How supportive would the different education sectors be, even given the fiscal backdrop?Probably more than the NI Executive might think. Finland an exemplar in education and top of PISA ranks – “no one left behind policy”
    • South Korea, Estonia etc scoring better than NI in PISA ( world ranking) results – is this where we want to be?
    • UK government doubled spend in education 1997-2007 but PISA ranking fell sharply.
    • NI Executive has powers over education and funding is high so why couldn’t NI have a world class education system like Finland or Estonia?

    Summing up…

    Fiscal cuts are coming to the education sector – long-term squeeze is likely (for two parliaments)

  • Strategic ‘pruning’ and budget realignment or the stark alternative of ‘death by a thousand cuts’
  • England is thinking innovatively – push for more choice and independence – giving parents, teachers and charities the option of setting up their own schools
  • We have inefficiencies and excess capacity
  • We are pledged to ensure equality of opportunity – the Entitlement Framework
  • We need provision for tomorrow, not just today – changing demographics
  • Elements of the education system not delivering
  • The rest of the world is not standing still.

    But will Northern Ireland continue to stand still ? We’ve had plenty of practice.

    , , , ,

    • barnshee

      “But will Northern Ireland continue to stand still ? We’ve had plenty of practice”

      Yes- we will continue to have Roman catholic schools and others- nothing can be done about it-get used to it

    • Brian Walker

      barnsee, your’e implying that this report is all a plot to get rid of Catholic schools. The report talks of sharing, and other alternatives to sharing,not solely integration ( an equally valid choice). Why bother to make this obvious point when there are real issues to discuss?

    • Driftwood

      I’ve asked this before, but what is a ‘Protestant’ school? I know the Free p’s have a few independent ones, but very few.
      I went to a state grammar in Downpatrick attended by Prods, Catholics and (mostly) agnostics and atheists.

      if you want real choice why not have Marxist schools, Vegetarian schools etc.

      Or simply just have state (secular) schools, and private fee paying ones for those who wish to opt out.

    • ThomasMourne

      Segregated education is an expensive nonsense which should be phased out over a very limited period of time – say 10 years.
      Virtually all costs connected with education are doubled under this system and massive amounts of money are wasted in busing children all around the place. Admittedly this keeps Translink in business, but at the taxpayers’ expense.
      Catholic schools have very little to do with parental choice but are vital to the church’s retaining power over its people.

    • Driftwood

      A valid reason for having Catholic schools would be if they had a separate curriculum.
      ie ‘Catholic’ Maths, ‘Catholic’ Science, ‘Catholic’ technology, ‘Catholic’ English etc

      Is that it? OR

      The parents don’t want their children mixing with evil prods and atheists who dont believe in Transubstantiation or don’t think every woman is a virgin (including single mothers).

      Time to leave this medieval gibberish behind, or let ‘faith’ parents pay for it.

    • joeCanuck

      Perhaps baby steps need to be taken first. For example, keep the separate schools for now at the Primary level and share the Secondary side facilities with provision for voluntary religious classes.

    • Driftwood

      The FE Colleges operate on a perfectly non-sectarian level.

      No requirement for anyone to attend voodoo lessons. Their parents can arrange for a witch doctor, priest, minister or astrologer to tutor them in their own time.

      Why separate children at 4 in to ‘us and them’?

      Does this happen in the USA or Canada?

    • joeCanuck

      If I had my way there would only be one system. I’m trying to recognize the historical reality and suggesting a way to move forward.
      Yes, the USA and Canada have separate schools but here we indicate when paying property taxes whether we wish the education part our money to go to State schools or the Maintained (Catholic) schools. I believe a lot of nominal Catholics send their kids to the State schools.

    • wild turkey


      your baby step approach has potential merit. however i would humbly suggest going the other way round. initially keep the secondary schools but share starting at the primary level and then over time this naturally flows thru the system up to secondary and then third level ed.

      all that said, integration is the elephant in the room. although i’ve lived in the north for 30+years i still can’t get my american head around the notion of the state subsidising religous based schools. how does it work in canada?

    • joeCanuck

      Wild Turkey,
      I’m not sure about the whole of Canada but here in Ontario, when Canada was established in 1867, part of the “price” paid was an undertaking that the Catholics could have their own schools. This might have initially only for elementary schools but got expanded. As I said above, the schools are funded on a County basis, and we can say where the education portion of our property taxes goes.

    • joeCanuck

      I should have said partially funded by the County. There is also a grant to each school from Provincial coffers, depending on the enrolment numbers.
      Interestingly also, in N.I. the state used to pay only the operating costs of Catholic schools, capital expenditure had to be raised by the church. When I was a kid there were continual money raising events in each parish for the “School Building Fund”. Not sure when that changed.

    • Driftwood

      Like just about everything in NI, the vested interests, especially CCMS in this case, will make sure no real change occurs.
      And the placebo assembly does not have the will or aspiration to confront the vested interests that are so important to maintain the gravy train status quo. There is no ‘shared future’ beyond mouthing platitudes when nudged, and pleading ‘special status’ at the real Government in Westminster.
      The ‘consultancy’ Oxford Economics (ha!) that produced this report stating the bloody obvious must have got a nice wee earner out of this though, Who paid?

    • Driftwood

      You lived in the USA and you do not realise there are ‘Universities’ like Bob Jones in South Carolina? or the equally farcical one in Kentucky where McCrea (Rev Willie) achieved the only ‘academic’ credential of his life?

    • Driftwood

      same ‘colleges’ as these morons

    • lamhdearg

      The crunch at last, if only, there are people in this place that would walk their children barefoot over broken glass to satisfy their own demented minds and we have a political system that could not sort out a leaking tap. the time has come to act and act fast, im leaving.

    • barnshee

      “Why bother to make this obvious point when there are real issues to discuss?”

      I despair

      The whole point of ” catholic education” is NOT to be part of “the system ” -then Irish language, Gaelic games, and the MOPery view of Irish history can be reinforced.

    • Brian Walker

      The point is that as far as I know no one has applied the conclusions of the Bain report at local level at least in public. Area consultations have been held I believe, but the whole process is frozen and theres’ been a complete lack of transparency and accountability. MLAs seem uninterested.

      I would like to see a draft plan for the secondary schools along Costello principles just to see what it looks like and as a basis of consultation among parents and the public generally as well as the closed world of professionals. I’m sure it would meet with opposition but if people saw how their schools might be affected in their area and on what cost and structural assumptions. we would at least get a real debate going.

      It’s not suprising that this freeze of all intelligent policy making breeds deep cynicism among people who have little experience of consensual government. But cynicism, the great Ulster default, is no answer to the impact of the cuts. It means you absent yourself from any decisions that are eventually made.

    • Turgon

      Much of this debate is reasonable but one comment here is utter nonsense and should be challenged:

      Does NI still have too many schools in total and too many small schools?
      57% of primary schools are in rural areas but account for only 36% of primary pupils. Is it acceptable to continue to fund schools with excess capacity and spread cuts across all schools?

      I cannot understand why Brian Walker is highlighting this

      NI may have too many small schools. However, of course rural schools are smaller. That is blindingly obvious common sense: there is a much lower population density in rural areas (oddly that being one of their rural characteristics).

      At a very rough and ready guess on these figures rural primary schools must be about half the size of urban ones. That is not going to be easy to change: even if we had only the state system. Very few people are going to support busing 4 and 5 year olds miles to and from urban schools. Furthermore the fact that the schools are smaller does not of itself necessarily mean they are that much more expensive.

      Sorry Brian that is a red herring: unless you think it reasonable to bus very small children very large distances.

      The stuff on paying for multiple different schooling systems is much more valid though I note that the consultants who, as has been suggested, have made coonclusions which are blindingly obvious; were of course paid for by the Integrated Education Fund.

      I am interested in where they (the Integrated Education Fund) get their money.

      Buried in their web site are the following funders:

      Restricted Grants from:
      The Irish American Partnership
      Australian Ireland Fund

      Both of those are no doubt completely upright organisations.

      However, the Integrated Education Fund says on its website “The fundraising target for the financial year 2009/10 was £3.083 million. Whilst this target was not achieved in-year (the total amount received was £964,038 i.e. approximately 31% of the target)”

      The next bit is the interesting part and surprise, surprise where does some of their money come from. To quote:

      “funding has also been secured for the three year period from January 2010 of £1.345 million from Atlantic Philanthropies and £1.25 million from an individual donor…”

    • Glencoppagagh

      Demand for integrated education is less than its promoters would have us believe.
      They have already suffered one humiliating setback with the closure of an integrated secondary in Armagh after only two or three years in existence.
      If the RC church persists with abandoning selection, the state grammar schools will become integrated in practice.

    • lamhdearg

      state grammar schools are already integrated, i visted the I.E.F. site on reading turgons post it states that 10% from the minority (cath?) is all they need for starters, i think most “state” grammar schools meet that.

    • lamhdearg,
      Ah yes but are they the right sort of Catholic? Or more seriously is not the problem that many state grammar schools are not interested in playing the silly game of jump through the hoops the integrated education movement creates. They just get on with it, avoiding the hype of the integrated movement: Limavady Grammar would probably be a case in point; .as on the other side would be Dominican in Portstewart.

      Another part of the problem is, I believe, that the integrated education movement is anti selection and as such might not accept the concept of an integrated grammar.

    • joeCanuck

      I can testify about Limavady Grammar School. Almost 40 years ago I convinced my parents (not without difficulty) to transfer the triplets from maintained Grammar Schools to there. They thrived.

    • joe,
      The problem is that according to the integrated education brigade Limavady Grammar is not integrated: they seem to be able to define integrated themselves and the likes of Limavady Grammar are ignored. Dominican in Portstewart is, I believe, the same from the other side so to speak. It is the form of integration as practised by Limavady Grammar and Dominican which is much more likely to be useful in the long term as they are natural and not the product of ideology.

      There are also problems with integration in some areas. In parts of West and East Belfast it would be difficult to get enough of the other community to achieve integrated status: though they could be bused shortish distances. Much more problematic would be parts of North Down, Strangford etc where especially in primary provision small children would have to travel large distances: there may not be enough Catholic kids to go round if you see what I mean. The problem would then become worse again in rural parts of North Antrim or parts of Londonderry around Coleraine. The same is true in reverse with large rural areas such as West Fermanagh or South Armagh where the Protestant community is thinly spread and all the children already have to travel large distances.

      Maybe fortunately for the integrated education brigade there is not as great a demand for integrated education as they claim to hope for.

      On another interesting note some schools like Carhill Integrated Primary outside Garvagh were always integrated and eventually applied for official integrated status. Becoming integrated did not actually change that much.

    • lamhdearg

      Take all religious teaching out of schools that receieve goverment money and let the market decide(parental choice) what schools survive, my biggest disapointment with intergrated schooling came when i delivered goods to lagan colage as i entered its reception i was greeted by a huge wooden cross hanging (lopsided as if it where “cool”)on the wall.

    • joeCanuck

      I have to confess that I don’t know much about the “integrated brigade”.
      Your points about the sparseness of certain “types” in certain areas are well taken. I can’t see “bussing” as any solution.

    • joeCanuck

      Aren’t all State schools “integrated” since they are open to anyone? Is there an official “integration” and what are the qualifying conditions?

    • Driftwood

      Seen that laughable Lagan college thing in reception. Apparently the schools have to add a ‘spiritual’ dimension to all teaching-including mathematics.

      Few people mention the FE colleges in the debate around segregated education. Anyone an idea of the ‘community background’ of most students at Belfast Metropolitan College? None would exist, but any religious or political symbolism would not be found.

      Many integrated schools are simply a parental means of not so bright middle class students not having to attend the horrors of being taught with working class kids at secondary schools.

    • joeCanuck


      What are FE schools? And, as I asked Turgon, are there “official” integrated schools?

    • Nunoftheabove

      What Lagan College puports to make itself “different and unique” on account of its “membership of the Community of the Cross of Nails”. Coventry WW2 connection. Go figure.

      Much better to banish crosses – and the dangerous empty baloney that they represent – from schools, FEs and publicly funded insitutions of all descriptions altogether. As a taxpayer, I object to it and even if I didn’t it would be objectionable in its own right anyway.

    • Driftwood

      Remember ‘The Tech’ ie Technical colleges.

      These have evolved in to wider academia and become Further Education Colleges.

      A bit like polytecnics (remember ‘The Poly’!) becoming ‘universities’.

      A declining demographic means massive competition for pupils – many secondary schools are teaching joke A levels to keep up numbers- and the result is desperate rebranding all over the system.

    • joeCanuck

      Thanks, Driftwood; same as Community Colleges here in Canada. The “Techs” were always integrated as I recall.
      What about “official” integration?

    • joe,
      Here is the blurb from the Integrated Education Fund

      and here is the stuff from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education.

    • joeCanuck

      Thanks, Turgon.

    • Driftwood

      To clarify.

      State schools are open to all. Same as the FE Colleges.
      Unlike ‘integrated’ (sic) schools they have neither a ‘Christian’ ethos or a Unionist/Nationalist ethos.
      BRA, RBAI, Down High etc are just good schools. So parents send their kids there.
      Faith schools have no place in a secular democracy. At least not paid for by the taxpayer.

    • joeCanuck

      Agree, Driftwood.
      I have now read Turgon’s links and see that the “official” integrated establishments place emphasis on a Christian ethos. I don’t think that’s good enough. I wouldn’t have sent my kids there. Just like I did, send them to State schools.

    • Driftwood,

      State schools are open to all, but it is a nonsense to suggest that they have no Christian ethos. Part of the deal done in the creation of the state sector was that the churches would maintain a presence in the running of the schools, with representatives on the board of governors etc. My old primary school for example had church representatives from the main Protestant denominations. Given also that it is a legal requirement in NI to teach Christianity in school, all schools (state or otherwise) effectively have a Christian ethos.

    • Driftwood

      That may be the law Andrew, though i know for a fact that Belfast Metropolitan College does not comply. And in practice many state schools treat it in a derisory fashion. The compulsory RE period in my old post-primary school was a source of boredom or mischief making for those that bothered to turn up.

    • barnshee

      In areas where there were no catholic grammars for boys (Ballymoney and Coleraine spring to mind) both of these schools (CAI and Dalriada)had a proportion of RC pupils

      The rule was/is that they did not attend Morning assembly or RE if they so wished

    • Barnshee,

      My state grammar school did have a small proportion of Catholic pupils (there were more non-Christians), but making them into special cases is not helpful.