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Educational Resources: Budget Cuts

Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP 3:00 pm, 19th January 2016

6. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Education how the proposed 3·8% cuts to his departmental budget will impact on front-line educational resources. (AQO 9425/11-16)

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Budget 2016-17 outcome for Education is challenging, partly as a result of the real-terms reduction to the Executive’s resource departmental expenditure limit position imposed by the Westminster Government. Following the Executive’s agreement on Budget 2016-17 on Thursday 17 December 2015, I have been working through the impact of the Budget 2016-17 outcome on the education sector and have not yet come to any final decisions on the 2016-17 budget allocations. However, although the Budget 2016-17 resource outcome is challenging, as I stated, the position for capital in Education is much better. My aim is to reach final decisions on my Department’s 2016-17 budget allocations as soon as possible to allow for early notification to schools and other bodies.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he recognise that the proposed cuts — and I recognise that they are proposed at this stage — of 3·8%, which equates to approximately £72 million of the resource budget, is a real risk to the teaching profession and will involve the possible loss of teachers, making the management of schools a real challenge for boards of governors?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

All the Executive budgets are facing a huge challenge, but I do not point the finger of blame at any of the Executive parties. I blame the economic and policy decisions made at Westminster. I believe that the Executive recognise the importance of education in our society. They have done their best, as a collective, to protect the Education budget amid competing priorities, for instance with regards to Health. However, the Education budget still receives uplifts that other Departments would be very happy to be dealing with. Even the scale of the cut to the Education budget is not in comparison with what other Departments are facing.

It is worth noting that with the voluntary exit scheme and how that was used last year, school budgets this year will save over £12 million because of the number of staff who left the service last year, which means that schools will have to pay out £12 million less in wages and salary costs this year. The Education Authority has around £7 million of savings in that area. If the scheme, which we debated at length earlier in Question Time, is fulfilled, we can make up around £9 million in savings there.

So, there are areas where we can recoup some of the losses to the schools budget; but I am conscious that any dip in the schools budget causes challenges for our schools.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his responses. Will the Minister make a commitment that the aggregated schools budget — the money that goes directly to front-line teaching services in schools — will not be cut in the 2016-17 budget?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

As I said to Mr Dunne, I am working my way through the budget. I cannot make commitments to any sector at this stage about what will or will not be protected. It is worth reminding Members that this is the fifth year of a downward trend in the Department of Education and Executive budgets. Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been removed in previous budgets; we are now dealing with the core budgets: the aggregated schools budget, funding for the Education Authority and funding for other organisations. I cannot make a commitment to those operating under any of the budget headlines that they will not face reductions in their spend this year.

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers. I appreciate his attempt to defend his budget in the face of the Conservative Government's onslaught on public spending and front-line services. He will appreciate, however, that schools are in uncertain circumstances and would like to know their budget as soon as possible. He said in his answer that he would be able to let schools know soon. Does he have any idea when that might be?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I am working on the basis of weeks rather than months. I have been in deliberations with my officials since the Executive set their Budget. I hope to be in a position within the next short number of weeks to inform schools of their budgets for next year.