The £105m education shortfall – behind the headlines…

The head honcho of the Department of Education says there is a rather big hole in the education budget, from the BBC:

Derek Baker, the department’s permanent secretary and the man in charge of the department in the absence of a minister.

Mr Baker said that the department had £24m less in cash than last year, but rising costs meant pressures of £105m.

He said the funding pressure was mainly due to rising pay, special educational needs and maintenance costs.

Mr Baker said that the department had spent “every penny” of its £1.9bn budget in 2016/17.

Government departments looking for more money is not exactly front-page news, but like most things in Northern Ireland when you look into it it is not quite as simple as it first seems.

Writing in the Irish News the other week Newton Emerson highlights the fact that for every £5,009 spent per pupil per year in NI a further £2,468 is spent on administration. This compares to only £1184 spent on administration per pupil in England. It may be a crazy idea but could we not reduce the admin budget and give more money to the actual schools?

Newton references a report by the Children’s Commissioner which also highlights the large admin costs.

Across the UK, the amount spent in total on education per child is £7,477 in Northern Ireland, £7,099 in England, £7.772 in Wales and £9,831 in Scotland.

Scotland has poured a lot more money into schooling but, on the face of it, NI holds up OK. However, there is a significant disparity. While the total budget per child in NI is similar to England and Wales, the percentage of this budget that makes its way to schools is much different. In England it is 83%, in Wales it is 84% – but here it is 67%.

So, the amount spent on schooling per child in the four nations is £5,915 in England, £6,565 in Wales, £7,305 in Scotland – and £5,009 in Northern Ireland. This is the outworking of the inefficiencies in Northern Ireland’s education system.

The shortfall seen here is largely allocated to two other budgetary areas: “Subsidiary services to education” and “Education n.e.c.” (meaning not elsewhere classified).

Per the report, subsidiary services means “home to school transport; school meals and milk; schools development services; pupil support (special schools and other education services); and other Education Authority centre services” while the not elsewhere classified spending is a catch all that includes administrative costs and also applies to “special schools; Non-Departmental Public Bodies (e.g. Education Authority, CCEA, CCMS, GTCNI, CnaG, NICIE, Middletown); capital (minor works, major works, special schools); departmental costs; and grants for education services”.

It would be ignorant not to recognise that a lot of this spending is likely to be extremely valuable and ultimately to the benefit of education of children in Northern Ireland, but the sheer disparity with other regions in the UK means scepticism is natural, especially when there are so many holes in budgets for schools.

NICCY further recommends that: “The Department of Education should provide more information on the money currently allocated to ‘subsidiary services to education’ and ‘education n.e.c.’ More of the funding allocated for education in Northern Ireland should be spent on direct education provision for children. A larger proportion of the education budget should be directed to schools so that they are not dependent on parents to provide funding.”

There are problems in education, and some of these require more funding to be solved – but that doesn’t mean we need extra money, just better spending.

You know you have problems when even the public sector is complaining about the cost of bureaucracy.

Add to this over 70,000 empty desks across schools in Northern Ireland, and you do wonder if education needs a good shake-up rather than more and more cash.

And all this is without looking at our age-old issue of duplication of state schools and Catholic schools in many places. It was not that long ago that even Rathlin Island with a population of just over a 100 had two primary schools.

We don’t like change in Northern Ireland so I expect we will just bumble along like we always do. But for how long can we keep putting off change?

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