Stasis and change in the education sector

19 July 2019 - by Matthew Jackson

This summer, Harding Memorial Primary School in East Belfast moved towards becoming the first integrated school in the area while over 95% of parents of pupils at Seaview Primary School in Glenarm voted in favour of becoming the first catholic school to move to integrated status.

And this week the Department of Education’s Annual Report and Accounts 2019 outlined the impact of the continued absence of the Executive and Assembly is having on the sector, during a year shaped by fraught industrial relations and ongoing overspends.

Interestingly, it also acknowledged that while the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 enabled a number of public appointments to be made, a Minister is required to approve nominations statutorily assigned to the Head of Department. This means that nominations to the board of the YCNI and CCEA were unfilled. 

Returning to policies and strategies pending ministerial approval, these include:

• Children and Young People’s Strategy;
• Executive Childcare Strategy;
• Joint Department of Education and Department of Health Looked After Children’s Strategy;
• Shared Education Campus Programme;
• Draft Annual Business Plan 2019/20.

Looking to the money, the Education Authority—Northern Ireland’s largest public sector body—reported a £15.1 million overspend on its block grant for 2018-19, following significant overspends in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

With the additional £50million Confidence and Supply monies for education spent on alleviating immediate pressures, further investment is needed to facilitate the kind of transformation and strategic planning needed in education similar to that seen in the Transformation Agenda in the health and social care sector.

The estimated 63,000 empty school desks across the region due to segregation and duplication of facilities and services provided the backdrop to the recent NI Affairs Committee Inquiry into Education Funding.

With the report due for publication in the coming weeks, it will reflect the concerns of witnesses who described Special Educational Needs support as inadequate; the Education Authority as not sufficiently transparent and lacking strategic direction.

It should also reflect the aspiration and progress made by the Department as articulated by Department of Education Permanent Secretary Derek Baker in March 2019, who, describing the implementation of the sustainable schools policy, stated

I take the view that it is in the public interest to press on with this work, because the fundamental purpose of such work is to ensure that we have a network of sustainable schools providing a broad and balanced curriculum for our children and young people.”