Secretary of State should act over NI's "crisis hit" education system - Report

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By Rebecca Black

The Northern Ireland Secretary should act over the region's "crisis hit" education system in the absence of devolved government, a Westminster committee has recommended.

Karen Bradley has been urged to increase the education budget and to introduce regulations previously agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly before its collapse in 2017.

The call has been made by Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee following an inquiry.

It comes after the Department of Education's Permanent Secretary Derek Baker warned last week that the system is facing "significant" financial challenges.

He told the BBC that the absence of an assembly and executive had compounded problems caused by the "constrained financial position".

In a report published on Monday, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded that since the collapse of Stormont in January 2017 a growing funding crisis in Northern Ireland's schools has resulted in unmanageable pressures on school budgets.

It found that the rising number of pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) is a key driver of the trend.

The committee concluded that Northern Ireland's schools urgently need more money to address the growing pressures facing staff, pupils and parents.

It heard evidence during its inquiry that some schools are under such financial strain that parents have donated supplies such as toilet roll and stationery.

Additionally, many schools have struggled to provide support to the growing number of students with SEND who require dedicated support.

The report calls for Northern Ireland's education budget to be increased in line with pupil numbers and to reflect the costs associated with caring for students with SEND.

The committee made a series of recommendations.

These include that in the continuing absence of devolved government, the Secretary of State should be prepared to implement education regulations previously agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It also recommended that future budget allocations for education rise in line with inflation and to reflect the number of pupils in the system, and that Government should work with the Departments of Education and Finance to produce three-year budget allocations for education.

The wide ranging recommendations also urge tackling the "unfair stagnation in teachers' pay", a review of the common funding formula and the consolidation of the school estate in Northern Ireland to concentrate resources in fewer schools.

Committee chair Simon Hoare said in the absence of devolved government, budgeting challenges in the education system have "mounted into a crisis".

"Northern Ireland's education system desperately needs more money to cope with the rising number of students presenting with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and unmanageable pressures on resources and school staff," he said.

"The Secretary of State can take action to improve the situation for SEND care by implementing regulations previously agreed at Stormont.

"The Secretary of State must also authorise the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education to authorise a teachers' pay deal once it has been agreed by Trade Unions.

"Ultimately however, Northern Ireland needs Stormont to be restored so that long-term structural problems within the education system can be addressed.

"Steps can be taken now to improve the situation for Northern Ireland's schools, but lasting change can only come from a Northern Ireland Executive."

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