Dept. ‘cannot spend money it doesn’t have’

SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack.  (DR4113JB145)
SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack. (DR4113JB145)

The head of the Education Department has told Derry and Strabane councillors that he does not have the £24m needed to restore funding for schools to previous levels.

Derek Baker, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Education, was responding in writing to the council after it raised concerns over the reduction in core funding for schools.

Back in October, at its full Derry City & Strabane Council meeting, the council had passed a motion proposed by SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack stating that it recognised “local schools are facing unprecedented financial pressures following real reductions in core funding for education, to the sum of £70 per pupil over the last number of years.”

The council supported a decision by local school principals to inform parents of the magnitude of the problems they are facing.

Councillors also agreed to write to the Department to request plans be put in place to ensure the funding is restored “at least to the original value or more,” while also writing to the leaders of all political parties urging them to reestablish the Northern Ireland Executive “and deal with the very real threat to our education system and the future of our young people.”

In his response, shared with elected representatives at their December meeting, Mr. Baker said the average funding cut per pupil across nursery, primary and post-primary schools was actually £73 less than it was in 2016-17.

In his letter to the council, he states: “I recognise the challenge which the current education budget presents given that the opening Aggregated Schools Budget (ASB) has remained flat in each of the last three years.

“This is a matter of great concern to me as it makes no provision for the impacts of pay and price inflation.

“However,” he added, “it is not within my gift to increase the budget allocated to the Department of Education. I can only operate within the allocation given to the Department.”

Mr. Baker said the fall in funding per pupil was “largely attributable to an increase in pupil numbers combined with a flat ASB.”

He said to bring it back up to 2016-17 spending levels per head would require a £24m increase in the ASB. “The Department simply does not have anything like this amount of funding available,” he said, adding: “Put simply, the Department cannot spend money it does not have.”

Speaking on her motion, Colr. Cusack said that education plus health were: “The two main pillars of a progressive society.

“It’s no secret that both are in crisis,” she said. “The education of our children and the devastating out workings of the cuts have become a prominent concern by all our local school principals, their staff and parents. And rightly so.

“I don’t have to re-list the serious impact they are having on all our schools, this has been broadly outlined by our professional educators, but suffice to say that redundancies, increased workload, reduced resources and additional support to students are just some casualties of this crisis.”