Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 8:15 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP 8:15 pm, 9th February 2016

I am pleased to speak as the Ulster Unionist education spokesperson on the Budget agreed for 2016-17 by the DUP and Sinn Féin. My focus is on the future generations of Northern Ireland. Education is a key Department and one that we, as elected representatives, need to get right. Our young people deserve our focus and attention.

As we look ahead to the new financial year and a new mandate for the Assembly, we know that Education is one of the Departments that will remain largely in its current state. All the Department's current functions will be carried forward, with some additional responsibilities in the new Department. Last month, in presenting the DUP/Sinn Féin Budget for 2016-17, the Finance Minister announced an extra £40 million for the Department of Education. At £1,948 million, the opening baseline resource budget for Education in 2016-17 is almost identical to the 2015-16 figure. That represents 19% of the non-ring-fenced DEL. That appears to be a very placid situation compared with the recently recurring annual crises over school budgets, but we know that schools are having to deal with other costs and with inflationary costs, which I will refer to later.

It seems like only yesterday that savage cuts to the Department of Education were being proposed. Last year, it was suggested that up to 1,000 teachers and 1,500 support staff could lose their jobs. Whilst that doomsday scenario never came to pass, very worthwhile schemes were cut and discontinued, such as the primary-school modern languages programme, the Sentinus programme and, particularly regrettably, the signature programmes in numeracy and literacy.

I would like to turn to the Youth Service. Given that the Education Minister announced his decision to dissolve the Youth Service and subsume the responsibilities into the Education Authority, I question whether cost savings are foreseen in that regard and whether there is evidence that money will be saved. I have concerns that our Youth Service may lose out on much-needed funding for the sector, since the Youth Service Northern Ireland multiplied the funding that it received fivefold.

Focusing on schools, I reiterate something that my colleague and predecessor as education spokesperson, Danny Kinahan MP, used to call for, and that is a joined-up education plan for the future so that schools know what is happening and have some degree of certainty about their annual budget allocation. I have been speaking to numerous schools, and they are frustrated with the lack of information and the lack of the stability that the Budget system brings them. They want to be able to be more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to figures that are given to them. I acknowledge that we are in a unique situation because of the one-year extension to the Assembly's mandate, but surely a better and more certain budgetary process can be worked out for schools. The Chair of the Committee referred to the aggregated schools budget, and I agree that it could be better secured from one year to the next. After the election, the Minister will be able to make a budget over the period of the mandate, yet there will be fluctuations year on year within the aggregated schools budget.

The Department of Education faces significant funding pressures going into 2016-17. The funding of shared education in the incoming year and further years deserves careful consideration. Over a year ago, £500 million of new capital funding for shared education over a 10-year period was announced in the Stormont House Agreement. However, the DUP/Sinn Féin Fresh Start Agreement states that that money can also be used for mixed housing projects. It is time that we had clarity on this issue, and I would appreciate that.

More widely on shared education, and being conscious of the Bill going through the Assembly, it is time that questions over the financial viability of that policy were explored. Option 4 in the business plans for shared education would cost £44 million annually, which, after four years, will apparently be absorbed into the mainstream schools budget. I wonder whether that is realistic or sustainable. I hope we can get answers to these questions.

The Programme for Government has a commitment to creating 10 shared campuses by 2018. The total cost of implementing these sorts of infrastructure projects could approach £1 billion, yet there is no funding secured for that. It is assumed that the EU Peace IV might be a possibility, even though the EU has already spent a total of £2 billion in Northern Ireland since 1994. So there is considerable uncertainty about funding for shared education, both in 2016-17 and into the future.

More immediately pressing, and referred to earlier, are the pension scheme revaluations. Those are likely to result in additional employer contribution costs and increase operating costs by 4·1%. With the single-tier pension scheme in place from April this year, schools will also face an increase of 3·4% in National Insurance contributions. In the current financial year, the Department received additional in-year funding to address the pension-related pressures. I would like to hear from the Minister where those costs will be covered in 2016-17.

The teaching workforce scheme was announced by the Minister but is going through an equality impact assessment only now, and we are not clear at this stage where that is going. It is not clear how the scheme will be allocated funding and what savings — if any — will be realised. It has been mooted that savings made through the scheme will remain with individual schools. I would appreciate clarity on that. What has been announced is a £33·1 million investment for the early retirement of 500 teachers over the age of 55 years, replacing them with recently qualified teachers. That proposal is causing considerable unrest on equality grounds, but a financial question has not been addressed: the £33·1 million quoted is at variance with the £47·3 million allocated to the teaching workforce in the Executive Budget for 2016-17 under the public sector transformation fund. I would appreciate clarification on that matter.

There are unanswered questions with regard to the Budget in respect of education. I can tell you that principals are worried. They are concerned about the future of their schools and the education of the children in their care. I share their concern, but I am sure that this is not as good as it gets.