Time to count the cost of segregated education

25 Feb 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Feb 2021

Pic: Unsplash

A review of Northern Ireland’s education system is due to get under way later this year.

When it does it will no doubt wrestle with one of our most intractable issues, one which has raged since the inception of the state – whether we still want to segregate children on religious grounds for their education.

In the past most of the discussion has been around the societal impact that such segregation has in a place which has been riven by conflict and the potential for a reconciled society of educating children together. This has certainly been the main focus of educationalists – those from elsewhere express astonishment that we continue to educate children in this way.

However a new report published by the University of Ulster provides a different angle which cannot be ignored: the sheer cost of division at a time when all departmental budgets are under immense pressure.

The consultation on Northern Ireland’s draft budget for 2021/22 has just closed.

Officials from the Department of Finance will be currently wading through the many responses they will have received from a multitude of organisations, interest groups and individuals representing all strands of society.

Nobody will get everything they want. The overall budget is determined by the Block Grant from Westminster. And it is troubling to note that Finance Minister Conor Murphy observed in the consultation document that the budget does not represent the stimulus required to kick-start a strong economic recovery. It’s a difficult time requiring difficult choices.

There is clearly no room for wastage and duplication of services. Yet that appears to be precisely what is happening with our schools’ system.  

According to figures compiled by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) there are almost  50,000 empty desks across the schools estate and upwards of £95 million per annum is wasted on duplication.

Furthermore it claims: “It is estimated that as much as £1 billion plus in the last decade alone has been spent bringing our young people into contact with each other in various cross-community initiatives to correct the negative consequences and prejudices resulting from their initial segregation. Add to this the cost of home to school transport, approximately £81 million per year, which sees children being bussed past their nearest school to attend a school of a different management type, demonstrates the staggering cost and economic impact of the segregated system.”

Last year Scope reported on a University of Ulster report from its Transforming Education series on the phenomena of what it calls “isolated pairs” of unsustainable controlled and maintained schools where the obvious solution would be to merge them into a single sustainable school.

This month the Transforming Education team have returned to the fray with an analysis of the administration of education in Northern Ireland. It, like the others, is published by the UNESCO centre at the University of Ulster, supported by the Integrated Education Fund and the Community Foundation.

Of all the reports in the series to date it is the most difficult to read – not as a result of any flaws of its authors but because of the system it describes: one so byzantine that you could imagine Theodosius the Great marvelling at its complexity.

It states: “the existing system for the administration of education in Northern Ireland presents a bewildering alphabetical word-storm of acronyms and initials.”

It claims that some of this emerged in the rancorous fall-out from a previous attempt at reform.

When Northern Ireland came into existence city and county councils had administered schools. However in 1973 after Direct Rule was introduced the British government set up the five Education and Library Boards to limit the influence of the councils.

After the Good Friday Agreement there was an appetite to provide more accountable control.  In 2006 Professor Sir George Bain led a review which highlighted how the complexity of administration and multitude of school types had contributed to the range of “inefficiencies manifest in the system”.

However the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) that emerged was immediately under attack amidst furious lobbying by vested interests.

The report states: “ESA had been conceived as a body that would reduce the complexity of educational administration and thereby save the public purse millions but, by the time that it was eventually abandoned, ESA had cost the taxpayer £17 million.”

It was replaced by the Education Authority in 2014, a compromise body which left CCMS, CCEA and the voluntary grammar sector intact.

The report drily notes that were are now left with more Arms Lengths Bodies (ALBs) than had been the case prior to the Bain report. There are currently eight, of which five support delivery of education in mainstream schools. These are: the General Teaching Council of NI; the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment; the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools; the NI Council for Integrated Education and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.

All this comes at a considerable cost. Per the report: “All ALBs receive grants from DE to cover staff salaries, administration costs and the implementation of an annual plan. Each of the ALBs that are supported by DE has separate sections for finance and human resources. Each has at least one administration building to service and maintain. Each has their own management structure and governing board. Each is provided with a direct budget for salaries and operational costs.”

It doesn’t end there. The department also provides grants to “professionalise the contribution” of a number of sectoral bodies – the Catholic Schools Trustee Service (£98,000) the Controlled Schools Support Council (£983,000) and the Governing Bodies Association (£98,000).

The report concludes: “the sums awarded to Non-Departmental Public Bodies (including CCEA, CCMS, CnaG, NICIE and GTCNI) amounted to around 1.2% of the total DE resource budget in 2019-2020.20 It could be argued that the current configuration means that DE is, in effect, bankrolling the structural, ethnic separation of education. It is notable that whilst bodies have been created with public finance to support integrated education (NICIE) and education through the medium of the Irish language (CnaG) no similar bodies exist to represent the particular interests of Special Education or single-sex education. The nature of the range of sectoral bodies that have been established could be perceived as being inequitable and politically motivated.”

Given all this it is very hard to believe that our education system is being funded in the most efficient way. And, given that, it is hard to see how a debate about the cost of a system divided both on sectarian and academic lines together with the extraordinarily complex administrative system that underpins it can be avoided.

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