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(UK) Belfast: Education deficit due in part to special ed costs

Oct 7, 2022, Belfast Telegraph: Education system staring at financial crisis with £550m shortfall

Northern Ireland’s education system could be facing extreme cuts to frontline services unless funding is urgently found to plug a £550m gap.

The warning has come from Education Minister Michelle McIlveen, who revealed that the department is risking breaching its statutory obligations to meet the basic needs of schools across the country.

Ms McIlveen was responding to an Assembly question from independent MLA Claire Sugden and said there were significant decisions to be made as “inescapable or pre-committed” spends were currently £550m higher than the baseline budget of her department.

“My department is very restricted in its ability to reprioritise or reduce spend due to the vast majority of its budget being required to address statutory and demanded obligations. About 80% of the total education budget is subsumed by staff costs,” Ms McIlveen said.

“While work is ongoing to identify programmes of spend that could be scaled back or stopped, this will be extremely limited. And obviously any reduction in spend would invariably require cuts to essential frontline services that support the most vulnerable within our society, as well as risking breaching statutory obligations.

“My department started the year with inescapable or pre-committed pressures estimated at a minimum of c£409m against the indicative baseline. This figure has now risen to c£550m.

Therefore, without confirmed in-year budget cover well in excess of the indicative baseline, the department is heading towards a significant overspend up to this amount.

“Even if the draft budget proposals are agreed to — which would give the Department of Education an additional c£161m above the indicative baseline — this would still lead to a very significant departmental overspend of up to c£390m.

“Some of the most significant pressures relate to pay (c£188m) and Special Educational Needs (c£122m [$135M]).”

Ms Sugden said the Department of Education’s budgetary situation was “deeply concerning” and underlined the need to form an Executive and set a budget urgently.

She added that, without setting a new budget — for which Assembly agreement and Executive sign-off is required — either a significant overspend or the slashing of vital services would result.

“This situation has thrown into question even the most vital of department spends, such as teachers’ pay and the provision of special educational needs support — two areas that have been identified as contributing to the current pressures,” Ms Sugden said….

“It is clear that very little can be done to reduce funding in other areas of education — and neither, of course, would that be a positive step, given how essential the various services are and how stretched the budget is already.

“This is set against the backdrop of increased — and increasing — costs for heat, power, food and other necessary resources. Schools are already experiencing hardship.”…


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