Cuts to education will 'set students in Northern Ireland back' compared to UK counterparts, MPs told

Proposed cuts to education funding in Northern Ireland will set students in Northern Ireland back by a "significant amount" when compared with their counterparts in other regions of the UK, MPs have been told.

The Education Authority is facing a funding gap of £200 million in the budget set by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris in the absence of a Stormont executive.

Sarah Long, chief executive of the Education Authority, gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday on the funding and delivery of public services in the region.

"In terms of the thumbnail of where we are financially, it would be fair to say that we are very deeply concerned about where we find ourselves in terms of education," Ms Long said.

She said many of the programmes that would have to be cut or see a decrease in funding aimed to improve the education of children most at need.

"Those are things like the Engage programme, that was put in place in terms of the pandemic, Healthy Happy Minds, some of our shared education work and our holiday hunger payments as well," Ms Long said.

"So we really are very concerned about the financial position and where we find ourselves and the impact that that will have."

Mark Baker, chief executive of the Controlled Schools' Support Council, also gave evidence to the committee.

He said there was not parity in investment in education between Northern Ireland and other regions of the UK.

"Northern Ireland is now £500, again behind compatriots in England, when you then add on top of that the £2.3 billion that the Chancellor announced last November for schools in England, which Barnett consequentials are not going to come through to Northern Ireland, that further puts Northern Ireland's children and young people £230 back," he said.

"So this is a significant amount of money if you compare a child in Northern Ireland with a child in Scotland - £2,000 extra a year we predict this year will be spent in Scotland, to Northern Ireland, over a child's life that is £30,000 in education.

"It is vital that there is parity of investment in our young people."

Liam McGuckin, president of the National Association of Headteachers (Northern Ireland), told the committee that the pressure from lack of funding was causing teachers to consider early retirement.

"More and more schools have fallen into deficit in the last few years because of, basically, a stagnation in funding over the last 10," he said.

"Funding for projects is removed and the morale in the workforce is at an all-time low, and we're facing a generation of school leaders who are looking at retirement at the earliest possible opportunity. And where are we going to find their replacements?"

Ms Long said the cuts would have a detrimental impact on children and students with special educational needs such as autism or ADHD.

"Last week our health colleagues published the report on autism and the levels and how much higher they are in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK," she said.

"I think that's something that we do as a Northern Ireland society need to attend to which is to understand those rates of special educational needs, because I think that's the only way in which we will really be able to get targeted early intervention."

She added: "I think we need to be really clear about our own population, and what their needs are, and how we best meet those needs. So I think there is an urgent need for that."

Several teaching unions have engaged in industrial action due to disputes over pay, with most schools in Northern Ireland being impacted by strikes in April.

Ms Long said the inability of the Education Authority to increase teachers' pay would lead to serious and significant disruption in schools.

"We do not yet have a pay deal for teachers for 21/22, never mind a settlement for 22/23 and we are facing into 23/24," she said.

"And we know that this year we have, after a successful resolution of industrial action, returned to industrial action.

"We also know that our non-teaching trade unions are hoping to ballot members in terms of their pay deal and also the pay and grading review for their lowest-paid staff, and I believe that that will lead to some serious and significant disruption in our schools as we move forward into the next term."

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