School budgets reduced by about 10%, report finds
The budget for schools in Northern Ireland has reduced by about 10% in real terms over the past five years.
That is according to a report on the financial health of schools just published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).
The comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said that the education system was "close to a tipping point" as a result.
The NIAO has called for a fundamental review of how schools are funded.
There are about 1,100 schools in Northern Ireland, but only 14 are independent and receive no funding from the Department of Education (DE).
The money a school receives each year is based on a number of factors including the number of pupils it has, the number of pupils with additional needs and the size of the school buildings.
About 80-90% of a school's funding is normally used to pay staffing costs, including teachers and classroom assistants.
The NIAO said that to save money some schools had reduced hours for teachers or employed teaching assistants instead of full-time teachers.
A school's spending should stay within their yearly budget, but they are allowed to overspend or underspend by 5% of that budget or £75,000 - whichever figure is lower.
The NIAO found that the financial position of an increasing number of schools had deteriorated since 2012/13.
They said that the Education Authority (EA) had reported that 396 schools were in deficit in 2017/18, up from 195 in 2012/13.
The number of schools with a surplus had reduced from 856 to 622 over the same period.
However, 2017/18 was the first year that the total deficit run up by schools - at £48m - outstripped the cumulative surplus figure, which was £39m.
The NIAO said that one voluntary grammar school, which was unnamed, had a deficit of over £7m on 31 March 2017.
Seven other schools with deficits of at least £1m by 31 March 2017 were named by the NIAO:
- Drumcree College in Portadown - which subsequently closed in June 2017 and was succeeded by St John the Baptist's College
- Strabane Academy
- Crumlin Integrated College
- City of Armagh High School
- Coleraine College
- St Columban's College, Kilkeel
- St Eugene's College, Enniskillen - which closed later in 2017.
However, the NIAO said that some other schools had run up large surpluses.
The NIAO said the aggregated schools budget - the money which goes directly to schools - had decreased by 10.4% in real terms since 2012/13.
The overall schools budget - which includes services delivered by the Education Authority (EA) to schools - had decreased by 9.3% in real terms over the same period.
"This report indicates an environment where there is pressure on school budgets, increasing pupil numbers and schools with sustainability issues," the NIAO report concluded.
"It is clear the system is coming close to a tipping point and action needs to be taken as a matter of urgency."
However, the NIAO were critical of the Department of Education and EA for failing to address some of the problems they had identified.
"There has been a substantial and persistent failure to manage schools' surplus and deficit balances," the report said.
"In our view, there are no real consequences for, or deterrents against, schools who do not undertake effective financial management of their budget."