‘Pathetic games… a disgrace…it feels Victorian’
These were the words of the Principal of Maghaberry Primary School in describing the education funding system here to the NI Affairs Committee earlier this week. An impassioned Graham Gault sat alongside three other local School principals as he described how his budget had been squeezed so much he now has to ask parents for funding for sundry items such as toilet roll and pritt-stick. The group articulated a range of issues arising from funding shortfalls and highlighted the impact these are having on both students and staff.
It was hard not to get a little bit angry listening to Graham speak. He describes a situation which is unacceptable, particularly in a developed economy which has had educational equity at its core for decades.
The concept of equity is providing everyone with what they need to be successful. We are society that in the post war era has prided itself on equitable access to education, providing our children with the education to give them an opportunity to be successful in life. Our system isn’t perfect, but it has underpinned our society and fuelled our economy with the skills we need for the last 70 years.
But it is clear the squeezing of public finances after eight years of austerity is biting, and biting hard. And that it is beginning to erode what we have always seen as a universal provision. The lack of a devolved Executive here hasn’t helped matters, but it is a problem that was emerging while the Executive was in place. And for both reasons, local politicians were in the cross-hairs of the panel.
In recent years our society has become more unequal – something which I wrote about in my last Slugger piece. But through declining public investment, we are removing access to services that were considered universal.
When a funding becomes constrained, choices have to be made. Graham is lucky that he is able to ask his parents for provisions, as many principals in Belfast, Derry and other areas do not have this luxury, given the socio-economic profile of their catchments. In the long run this squeeze will impact outcomes, and those who can find resources from elsewhere to plug the gap left by the public purse will see less of an impact. In turn, those schools who cannot find top ups to insufficient budgets will struggle, and it is likely those who have the most to gain from education, will suffer.
Education is seen as a key route out of poverty. Start to erode our education system and you risk more people staying in poverty. Fundamentally we are removing equity. We putting at risk giving our children the tools they need to be successful, and this is the primary concern.
Over the long term this may breed further inequality and impact economically and socially. We need only to look to the US where there are huge inequalities in education, driven in large parts by a lack of equity, which contributes to it being one of the most unequal societies in the Western World.
Ironically it is an equality agenda that is a key barrier to the restoration of Stormont. It is an agenda I largely agree with, but it is clear for the comments of Graham Gault and his colleges that a functioning and effective Stormont can help. The longer Stormont lies empty, the more risk to our education system and our public services at large, which in the long run could open a whole new equality debate, one which could also be seem almost Victorian in its nature.
John Lavery is an economist and policy advisor specialising in regional, sub-regional and local economic development and city and regional competitiveness. Recently returned to Belfast after five years in New Zealand, John is a Senior Manager with the Baker Tilly Mooney Moore Economic Advisory team. Tweets at @jp_lavery