Education in NI is ready to snap

19 Oct 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 19 Oct 2018

Schools are saving money by cutting teaching hours - in other words, by providing less education. Urgent change is required.

The Northern Ireland schools system is a sinking ship.

Despite all hands being to the pump, the general finances of our schools estate are on a downward spiral, a spiral that we knew was coming and have failed to avert.

The NI Audit Office (NIAO) released a report this week tracking the financial health of schools between 2012/13 and 2016/17 that hit the headlines with some grim statistics. In the past five years:

  • The General Schools Budget (GSB) has decreased by 9.3% in real terms
  • The Aggregated Schools Budget (ASB) - money from the GSB directly allocated to schools - fell by 10.4%
  • The number of Controlled and Maintained schools in Northern Ireland with a surplus fell from 856 to 711 whilst the number with a deficit increased from 197 to 315

Both surpluses and deficits in controlled and maintained schools are capped 5% of their budget share, or up to £75,000, whichever is lower, but an extraordinary number of controlled and maintained schools are in breach of this: 165 of the 315 schools in deficit, and 471 of the 711 schools in surplus.

At 31 March 2017, the total value of the surpluses in these sectors was £46.8m which, for what it's worth, is higher than the sum-total deficit of £32m.

However, it is worth noting that the average surplus among those schools in surplus (around £66k) is much lower than the average deficit for schools in the red (almost £102k, meaning this average is itself higher than the absolute cap placed on any deficit, of £75k).

A total of seven schools have deficits of over £1m.

The picture is grim. Auditor and Comptroller General Kieran Donnelly, commenting on his report, said:

“The Department of Education and the Education Authority need to undertake a fundamental review of how schools are funded as well as ensuring the implementation of recommendations made by the Public Accounts Committee in its report on the Sustainability of Schools.”

This sounds a lot like a call for a Bengoa-style review into education - indeed, some politicians are asking for just that. But, hasn't this already been done?

Bain and gain

In 2006, the Independent Strategic Review of Education (otherwise known as the Bain report) was published.

It looked at our education in NI, found a series of fault lines, and made 61 recommendations to create a better and more robust system.

At the time, Slugger O'Toole corralled together some key excerpts from the report that are still highly relevant today:

The system of schools in Northern Ireland comprises five main sectors: Controlled Schools – including Controlled Integrated Schools – Catholic Maintained Schools, Voluntary Grammar Schools, Grant-maintained Integrated Schools, and Irish-medium Schools.

The diversity of school type, the selective system of education, the existence of single sex schools, and the substantially rural nature of Northern Ireland largely explain both the relatively large number of schools that exist and the sizeable proportion of small schools. Although the range of provision is explained, and indeed justified, by the principle of parental choice, the inefficiencies manifest in the system need to be addressed as a matter of urgency...

At the beginning of the Review’s work, I thought it would be mainly concerned with the issue of “surplus places” and the economic case – cost-effective provision that gives good value for money – for rationalising the schools’ estate. As the work advanced, the economic case for rationalisation remained important, but two other arguments for rationalisation became even more important: first, the educational case – access for pupils to the full range of the curriculum, to high quality teaching, and to modern facilities – and second, the social case – societal well-being by promoting a culture of tolerance, mutual understanding, and inter-relationship through significant, purposeful and regular engagement and interaction in learning.

In short, Sir George Bain, who authored the report, had thought the financial case for rationalising schools - both in terms of having five main sectors, and in terms of enrolment numbers in specific settings - would be the main focus of his report, but this was superceded by educational and social concerns.

Sir George noted that there were 54,000 unfilled school places across NI and that minimum enrolment numbers should change.

At the time, the minimum advised number for primary schools was 60 pupils in total, with the Bain review saying this should increase to 140 in urban areas and 105 in rural.

The review stated further that, for post-primary, minimum numbers should be 500 between years eight and 12, and that any sixth form should have at least 100 pupils.

It also advocated the sharing of settings, where possible - which forms the basis of shared education programs that are being developed.

The BBC reported this by saying: "Hundreds of schools across Northern Ireland face closure after a new report stated there were too many schools and not enough pupils."

Sir George did not believe his recommendations would lead to some financial miracle, but did think savings could be made – or, rather, money would be made available to spend elsewhere - while education itself could be improved (such as by providing access to a complete curriculum), as could social cohesion.

Review of reviews

This week's NIAO report is not the only recent paper of relevance to come out of the Audit Office.

In 2015, it released a report into the Sustainability of Schools that had some interesting findings in the context of Bain, nearly a decade before.

The Bain review highlighted 54,000 empty desks across all schools, about 15% of the total enrolment figure, and said this needed to be reduced to less than 10%. Instead, nine years later there were nearly 71,000 empty spaces, about 20% of capacity.

The Audit Office criticised the Department of Education (DE) for not setting any targets for reducing these figures, or for finding out their financial cost.

It echoed the Bain review's statement that NI has too many small schools, pointing out that 36% of primary schools and 47% of post-primary failed to meet the 2006 report's recommended minimum enrolments.

This sounds bad – and it is – but with added complexity.

In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published its Report on Department of Education: Sustainability of Schools, which found that the number of empty spaces was "likely to be overstated" due to the cumbersome methodology used by DE, as well as nothing that surplus spaces had been in decline since 2008/09 when the figure was estimated at 83,376.

It's hard to tell if this is good news for the overall health of the education system (it certainly is not good news for DE). Having fewer surplus places (albeit an unknown number of empty desks) is ostensibly a good thing, but the problems for educational finances persist and, from that point of view, this might represent less scope for savings.

Moving away from empty desks, and on to small schools, the PAC said:

"Almost 3 per cent of the total school budget (£36 million) is allocated to supporting small schools and the cost per pupil varies significantly across schools. Although there are no plans to revisit the small schools support factor at this time, the Committee is nevertheless concerned that the Department cannot demonstrate that the £36 million investment in small schools always represents value for money."

Really, it is incorrect to say that education has been Bengoaed already.

In fact, the Bengoa report was really an affirmation of previous sweeping reviews and plans like Transforming Your Care and the Donaldson report, which highlighted the same structural problems and advocated similar solutions.

In that sense, what Mr Donnelly is suggesting – and the Alliance Party’s Chris Lyttle has explicitly asked for - could not be any more Bengoa-esque.

Experts have been saying similar things for a long time, a crucial pillar of society is crumbling, and hopefully hearing the key messages again, one more time, alongside a vision and pathway for reform will shift the needle, creating enough political will to increase the rate of change and head off disaster.


The latest Audit Office report makes four broad recommendations, saying DE and the Education Authority (EA) should:

  • Undertake a fundamental review of the Local Management of Schools arrangements (including the Common Funding Scheme, and effective interventions against schools who live outside budgetary constraints)
  • Implement recommendations from their own investigations, including EA' Surpluses and Deficits Working Group and De’s ‘Internal Audit Review of School Spend’
  • Implement the recommendations in the 2015 NIAO report and 2016 PAC report
  • Review measures being developed by the Department for Education in England and consider if they could help schools here and "[i]n doing, so the Education Authority should ensure that its central procurement framework provides best value for money for Controlled and Maintained schools"

This all seems sensible but there will be significant problems at the political level.

Firstly, we have no Executive, so the Department cannot make sweeping changes. However, we have had a functioning government for most of the time since the Bain review, and many of these issues were not dealt with satisfactorily.

The different but related issues of empty school places and total enrolment numbers at schools have an obvious general solution: consolidation, using economies of scale.

This clashes immediately with two NI concerns - rurality, and religion in schools.

If rural schools close a significant number of children might have to travel further to get to school. This impacts upon them but also on parents and their working life. Our transport system is not what it should be, particularly in rural areas.

Then there is religion. Our schools system, with its five main sectors, is a great respecter of parental choice, from one point of view, and an anti-social segregated anachronism from another.

But, really, we live in a financial reality. The Bain review highlighted that consolidation was necessary so all pupils could have access to a full curriculum - it is scandalous that this was not the case anyway - so as well as saving money it provides better education, in theory.

Now schools’ budgets are stretched enormously. Breaking point is approaching. Between 80% and 90% of a school's budget is spent on staffing costs. The latest NIAO report says some schools have saved cash by reducing hours for teachers or employing teaching assistants instead.

Another way of putting this is that schools are saving money by providing less education. That is unacceptable. Something has to change.

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