Education needs to be smarter

8 Sep 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 8 Sep 2017

Last week’s NICCY report looked at the alarming costs paid by parents towards their children’s education. A closer look at the paper reveals deeper problems – and possible solutions.

At the end of last week the Children’s Commissioner released a new report into the cost of education in Northern Ireland.

The paper looked at direct spending by parents into the education of their children, as well as impacts of this on inequalities.

The headlines were alarming – “Schools cost parents £1,200 per child annually”, with this average differing between different settings: around £421 per pre-school child, £1,005 for primary school, £1,518 at secondaries, and £1990 for grammar schools.

These results stemmed from a survey commissioned by NICCY that looked into costs arising from meals, transport, uniforms, school fees, voluntary contributions and equipment for lessons.

Two of NICCY’s priority areas are child poverty and education, and the organisation says that it has repeatedly heard that “the costs associated with education is impacting on the ability of children and young people to fully participate in their education.

The commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, said: “This survey clearly demonstrates that children in Northern Ireland are not enjoying their right to a free education. Financial support for parents on low incomes only applies to a small proportion of these costs and does not even begin to plug the gaps.

“It is wholly unacceptable that parents are getting into debt to pay for essential education costs, going without or considering cost when choosing to send their child to a certain school or on an educational trip.

“This situation should not be tolerated and schools, along with the Education Authority and the Department of Education, must act so that disadvantage stops at the school gate and every child’s experience of education is equal.”

It paints an alarming picture, and rightly so, but if you drill down further into the report there are further causes for concern. Some of the mitigations designed to help children from poorer backgrounds are not fit for purpose.

Free school meals, and school uniform grants

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those eligible for free school meals (FSME), suffer from a gap in attainment.

Entitlement to free school meals and school uniform grants are determined along similar lines, based on parents’ (or guardians’) receipt of certain benefits.

These both provide obvious and direct help with some of the extra costs borne by parents, which go towards the £1,200 average figure polled by NICCY.

In the case of free school meals, eligibility for this serves as a proxy measure for deprivation (although, given the criteria are similar, this is not that different than both fulfilling this proxy function), and so the mitigations are supposed to go further.

As part of the Common Funding Scheme, schools are paid additional funding for each pupil in attendance who is eligible for free school meals. However, there is a problem. Although this money is supposed to work against the inequalities suffered by pupils from deprived backgrounds, there is no guarantee this is the case.

Per the NICCY report: “There are no requirements on schools in Northern Ireland to account for this funding or to prove that this funding is being spent on improving the educational outcomes of this group of pupils. There is therefore no way of knowing if the additional money allocated to schools to improve the educational outcomes of pupils who are FSME is having the desired or indeed, any impact.

“NICCY has concerns that this funding may be being spent by schools to plug gaps in general school funding and not for the purpose for which it was intended. This is not the case in England where schools are under a statutory obligation to publish their ‘pupil premium strategy’ on their website with information including how they will spend the additional funding allocated for disadvantaged pupils and measure impact, as well as information on how the previous academic year’s allocation was spent and its impact on the educational attainment of disadvantaged pupils.”


The issue here is obvious.

Schooling is expensive for all parents. Children from poorer backgrounds suffer because of their relative deprivation. Although the provision of free school meals (and uniform grants) themselves alleviates these costs to some degree, poorer families are still placed under incredible financial strain – only for help that is apparently targeted at their children to risk disappearing into other spending.

One of the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendations is: “The additional funding allocated to schools under the Department of Education’s Common Funding Scheme for specific groups of children, including children who are FSME, must be spent by schools on improving the educational outcomes of these children. The Department of Education should introduce a statutory requirement on schools to account for this funding, including demonstrating how it will be spent and what impact it is having. This funding should meet the individual needs of each child and could include the costs of school uniforms, books, equipment, materials and educational trips.”

It is worth taking a look at the other recommendations in full. Broadly speaking, they either ask for public expenditure to cover various educational costs, call for more transparency in spending, or more sensitivity from schools regarding some costs (for example, the relaxation of uniform rules to make uniforms more affordable).

On the face of it, this is a difficult thing to square. Budgets are extremely tight and, for example, if schools are siphoning off their free school meals extra payments to plug gaps elsewhere this is not right or ideal but is at least understandable.

And, of course, there is extra money that could be freed up.


Across the UK, the amount spent in total on education per child is £7,477 in Northern Ireland, £7,099 in England, £7.772 in Wales and £9,831 in Scotland.

Scotland has poured a lot more money into schooling but, on the face of it, NI holds up OK. However, there is a significant disparity. While the total budget per child in NI is similar to England and Wales, the percentage of this budget that makes its way to schools is much different. In England it is 83%, in Wales it is 84% - but here it is 67%.

So, the amount spent on schooling per child in the four nations is £5,915 in England, £6,565 in Wales, £7,305 in Scotland – and £5,009 in Northern Ireland. This is the outworking of the inefficiencies in Northern Ireland’s education system.

The shortfall seen here is largely allocated to two other budgetary areas: “Subsidiary services to education” and “Education n.e.c.” (meaning not elsewhere classified).

Per the report, subsidiary services means “home to school transport; school meals and milk; schools development services; pupil support (special schools and other education services); and other Education Authority centre services” while the not elsewhere classified spending is a catch all that includes administrative costs and also applies to “special schools; Non-Departmental Public Bodies (e.g. Education Authority, CCEA, CCMS, GTCNI, CnaG, NICIE, Middletown); capital (minor works, major works, special schools); departmental costs; and grants for education services”.

It would be ignorant not to recognise that a lot of this spending is likely to be extremely valuable and ultimately to the benefit of education of children in Northern Ireland, but the sheer disparity with other regions in the UK means scepticism is natural, especially when there are so many holes in budgets for schools.

NICCY further recommends that: “The Department of Education should provide more information on the money currently allocated to ‘subsidiary services to education’ and ‘education n.e.c.’ More of the funding allocated for education in Northern Ireland should be spent on direct education provision for children. A larger proportion of the education budget should be directed to schools so that they are not dependent on parents to provide funding.”

There are problems in education, and some of these require more funding to be solved – but that doesn’t mean we need extra money, just better spending.

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