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.

    Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London