With minister absent, education reform contentious but doable

12 March 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

As a devolved matter, education is rarely debated in the halls of Westminster. Yet, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee – which features four of Northern Ireland’s MPs – recently convened to hear evidence on the sector's 2018-19 funding priorities.

Two weeks ago the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made headlines after Ian Paisley MP accused the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Koulla Yiasouma, and Sir Robert Salisbury, Chair of the 2013 Independent Review of the Common Funding Scheme, of talking “Northern Ireland right into the gutter”. 

Dr Andrew Murrison MP, Chair of the Committee, welcomed the witnesses stating that “since we have no representative institutions at a Northern Ireland level currently, we feel it is important that we try to be as helpful as we can” and announced the Committee’s intention to publish a report with recommendations soon. 

The experts painted a bleak picture of the state of education, describing the system as “unsustainable” due to too many small schools existing as a result of religious segregation and academic selection.

The Integrated Education Fund found that 92 per cent of schools are divided by religion, while 50 per cent of schools operate selective criteria.

As highlighted by the Commissioner, the result of this reality means that there are 63,000 empty desks across the region. The Education Authority, meanwhile, is running a £90 million deficit.

While the witnesses welcomed the £37 million of confidence-and-supply funding that is set to be used by the Department for the alleviation of financial pressures, they stressed that longer term investment is urgently needed in order to effect a meaningful re-design.

Both Yiasouma and Salisbury endorsed a Bengoa-style reform agenda, but this cannot be achieved without a Minister for Education to spearhead the efforts.

Even with a minister in place, reform of the education system is a contentious issue. Salisbury chaired an inquiry and produced a report for the Department of Education in 2013. It recommended a ‘fundamental redesign’ of our system in 2013 – when Stormont was still functioning.

Educational reform has proved to be unpopular politically. During the committee hearing, Salisbury suggested that rather than promoting integrated schools in order to cut costs, “we should be probably pushing the notion that the entitlement that youngsters have in a school is increased if you have larger combined schools”. 

On Tuesday, the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP, announced an increased allocation of funds and spending powers for the Department of Education Northern Ireland’s 2019 budget.

In spite of this positive news, she insisted: “We are keen that the Northern Ireland civil service does the necessary work to prepare for the transformation of health and education and for the urgently needed reforms but, to be clear, the actual reforms can only be made once Ministers are in place in Stormont to make the decisions and give political direction.”