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Education leaders urge Heaton-Harris to step in over ‘chronic underfunding’

Education chiefs have written to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)
Education chiefs have written to Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)

Education leaders in Northern Ireland have urged the Secretary of State to “end the cycle of chronic underfunding”.

In a joint letter, the chief executives of the seven main education bodies said children and young people in the region should be treated equitably with those in the rest of the UK.

It comes as the Stormont Assembly and Executive continue to be collapsed leaving senior civil servants to lead departments with limited powers.

In the absence of ministers Chris Heaton-Harris set a budget amid challenging financial circumstances with Stormont having two years to pay off an almost £300 million overspend.

Earlier this year Mr Heaton-Harris announced that an allocation of £75million for Northern Ireland in the autumn statement will be used to reduce Stormont’s overspend.

Industrial strike
Education support workers taking strike action over pay and grading in November (Liam McBurney/PA)

The education leaders said they noted that decision “with concern”, claiming it “penalises the children of today and tomorrow” and should be a “much-needed investment required in public services”.

“Our children and young people in Northern Ireland continue to be let down by the increasing challenges resulting from over a decade of chronic underfunding,” they wrote to Mr Heaton-Harris.

“As the chief executives of the seven main education bodies we are writing to implore you to end this cycle and treat our children and young people equitably.”

They raised ongoing industrial action by teachers and school support workers over pay, as well as “inadequate funding” for the fabric of the school estate and an increasing demand for support for young people with special educational needs.

“Our staff are the very bedrock of the education system ensuring that our children have the opportunity to attain the best start in life,” they said.

“It is essential that as a society we value and invest in the education of our children and young people and in future generations to come and collectively we strongly repeat our call for sustained investment, fair pay for all our staff and continued investment in the transformation of services.

“A lack of investment in education, in the early years of our children’s lives today, will have an ever increasing impact on the economy, justice system and health systems tomorrow.

“The underinvestment that has continued over the past financial year exacerbates an already unsustainable situation.”

They said as chief executives they are “aware of our collective responsibility to drive forward efficiency and transformation measures”, and make best use of available resources.

“Steps have already been taken to reduce expenditure, however, our joint concern is that without equitable investment, outcomes for all our children and young people will be compromised,” they said.

“The Department of Education has had to make difficult decisions over the past year resulting in the removal of a number of programmes and funding streams that supported the Covid recovery and alleviated the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on our children and young people.”

Moving into 2024, they told Mr Heaton-Harris that it is “critical that education in Northern Ireland is funded equitably in line with other UK regions”.

“A child in Strabane should be entitled to the same level of investment as a child in Sunderland, Swansea or Stirling,” they said.

“We recognise that a decision on how the allocation of a further £110m announced as part of the autumn statement will be made early next year and would strongly call for education to be prioritised in deliberations.

“We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you at your earliest convenience to discuss the significant challenges facing the education system which we anticipate will remain the position into 2024/25 and beyond.

“It is incumbent on us all to protect the education of our children now and for generations to come.”

The letter was signed by Sara Long, chief executive of the Education Authority, Roisin Marshall, chief executive of the Council for Integrated Education, Gerry Campbell, chief executive of CCEA, Nuala O’Neill, chief executive of the Governing Bodies Association NI, Eve Bremner, chief executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, Mark Baker, chief executive of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council and Maria Thomasson, chief executive of Comhairle na Gaelscolaiochta.