Independent review identifies £291m shortfall in Northern Ireland education budget

The Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland, which was a key commitment in New Decade New Approach, raises major concerns of an ongoing “funding crisis." Credit: PA

The education budget in Northern Ireland needs an additional £291million to address special educational needs and meet a funding gap with England and Wales, an independent review has found.

The Independent Review of Education in Northern Ireland, which was a key commitment in New Decade New Approach, raises major concerns of an ongoing “funding crisis."

It said education in Northern Ireland needs £155m to address a funding gap with England and Wales while £136m is needed to address the additional cost of having a considerably higher proportion of pupils with statements of special educational needs.

Panel chairman Dr Keir Bloomer said education in Northern Ireland has “suffered from years of underfunding."

He said the report has far-reaching recommendations to “radically reform” the education landscape in the region.

Dr Bloomer said: “Our analysis shows that recurrent funding for the Department of Education has reduced in real terms by £145 million over the last 11 years while the pupil population increased by 7%.

“During that time, per-pupil funding reduced in real-terms by around 11%.

"These cuts are having a lasting and detrimental impact on learners, and need to be reversed.”

The panel also claimed funding in Northern Ireland is inequitable compared to other parts of the UK.

Dr Bloomer said: “The 2023/24 budget for the Department of Education, as announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in April 2023, was 2.5% less than the prior year budget.

"This compares unfavourably to the 6.5% planned rise in the English schools budget."

The report, which was published on Wednesday following two years of work, makes 25 recommendations, including that all learners should, by law, remain in education or apprenticeship/training until age 18.

This could involve full-time education or training, or spending at least 20 hours per week working or volunteering while in part-time education or training.

The report recommends the formation of a single unified department to oversee “learning and skills” by merging some of the responsibilities of the Department for the Economy with the Department of Education.

The panel also concluded that further education should be reformed to reduce costs and support lifelong learning.

This would involve simplifying the qualification system, expanding the number of university places and a single college governance model with fully integrated shared services operating via local campuses to replace the current regional colleges.

In addition, it seeks the expansion of early-years education so that all two-year-olds receive up to 20 hours per week.

Other key points among the 25 recommendations include the need to prioritise investment in education, “promote learners learning together”, reform the curriculum and increase the age of educational participation to 18.

It also focuses on access to the curriculum for all pupils, the prospects of moving towards a single education system, securing greater efficiency in delivery costs, and raising standards.

It recommends there should be a limit on the number of students transferring to post-primary schools based on academic criteria and increased flexibility for students to transfer to different institutions.

The panel said there should be a new plan for the school network to promote greater community cohesion under a single strategic planning authority.

This process could potentially create 177 new “jointly managed community schools” by merging schools from different sectors.

This would result in one in five pupils enrolled in such schools by 2031.The panel recommends that all schools should take steps to ensure a greater mix of religious background in their pupil population.

The report said the reformed network could generate maximum annual savings of approximately £100 million for reinvestment in education.

The reform of the school network follows concern over the number of small schools in Northern Ireland, with more than 245 primary schools below minimum thresholds for pupils – 21 of which had fewer than 30 pupils.

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