Northern Ireland

Education system financial challenges 'significant'

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Northern Ireland's education system is facing "significant" financial challenges.

The political impasse at Stormont has also stopped the implementation of a number of key education policies.

The top official at the Department of Education, Derek Baker, made the comments in the accounts for 2018-19.

He said that there was currently insufficient funding to allow more shared campus schemes to progress.

The accounts also reveal that Education Authority again overspent its budget in 2018-19, this time by £15m.

That follows previous overspends in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Mr Baker said that the absence of an assembly and executive had compounded problems caused by the "constrained financial position".

He said that new strategies for childcare, children and young people and looked-after children had been delayed due to the lack of a minister.

While five shared education campuses had previously been approved, the scheme to build more has also stalled.

"Further projects have been identified from a third call for applications," Mr Baker wrote.

"However, the Department of Finance has confirmed that there is insufficient Fresh Start Agreement funding to take these projects forward."

It has also not yet been possible to appoint a contractor to build the delayed Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh.

Some public appointments have also been unable to be made by the department in the absence of a minister.

School disruption

Mr Baker also expressed concern about the ongoing impact of industrial action by four teaching unions.

While a draft agreement has been reached to end the dispute, it is dependent on funding for a pay award and backing from teachers.

"Industrial action by teacher unions disrupted the normal operation of schools," he said.

Very few inspections of schools by the Education and Training Inspectorate were able to be fully completed due to the action, for example.

Mr Baker also said that schools were facing "widely acknowledged" financial pressures, as was education as a whole.

"The 2019-20 budget is effectively a real-term reduction and therefore some very difficult decisions had to be taken."

The department spent almost £2.2bn in resource and capital in 2018-19, similar to 2017-18.

Just under £1.15bn went directly to schools, which was around £40m less than in 2017-18.

The Education Authority received £629m to provide services to schools - including transport, meals and maintenance - and support for children with special educational needs.

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