NEU (National Education Union), Europe’s largest trade union of educators and teachers have shared its views on the ‘rapid response report’ document, ‘The Consequences of the Cuts to Education for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland’ stating that the picture painted by it is “unremittingly bleak”.

The document produced by academics from QUB, UU, Open University and Stranmillis University College is a response in which to provide feedback to the Department of Education (DE) NI Budget consultation. DE launched a public consultation on the equality implications following the announcement by the Secretary of State on the 2023-24 budget allocations.

NEU argue that in what is the most challenging overall budget in recent history, the Department of Education faces unprecedented funding challenges and cuts in 2023-24.

For the Department, the 2023-24 Budget allocation results in a funding gap in excess of £300m for 2023-24. Managing resource shortfalls of this magnitude will undoubtedly have a significant and adverse impact on the Department’s ability to deliver educational services in 2023-24.

Regional Secretary of NEU, Mark Langhammer said: “The picture painted by the ‘Consequences’ report is unremittingly bleak. Overall spending per pupil for school aged children in NI is falling behind the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This is before any account is taken of the inflationary pressures facing education providers in NI, or the societal factors and legacies of conflict which affect the provision of education here.

“The removal of, or deep cuts to, schemes such as those to alleviate holiday hunger, period poverty and the high costs of school uniforms have a cumulative impact on groups which are already disadvantaged, in terms of their experience of education provision. This is particularly problematic in light of the shortcomings in the operation of public sector equality protections.

“We then address the impact of cuts in light of specific educational challenges. Societal mental health and wellbeing issues in NI have a profound impact upon education, and service provision both in schools and in youth groups is being subject to deep and sudden cuts, when the operation of programmes such as Happy Healthy Minds have yet to be properly evaluated.

“Furthermore, when research points to the significance of early years development and the effectiveness of shared family reading, the removal of funding from the Book Start Baby scheme provides a gratuitous example of an intervention which prioritises a limited short-term saving and which sees provision in NI fall far short of other parts of the UK. Although the DENI has explicitly recognised the importance of Early Years policy and ring-fenced provisions such as Sure Start, after months of uncertainty, this is an area of provision in which officials are attempting to maintain provision in NI when it should be being expanded.”

NEU have provided a list of recommendations which they would like to see brought in following the findings of the report.

These include:

  1. The Secretary of State must provide guidance on proposed cuts on a departmental level, in light of consultation with the Irish Government, which should respond to full public consultation on these proposals.
  2. In the absence of direct ministerial authorisation for decisions, the Department of Education NI should seek clarification from the Secretary of State on how they should take account of the recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its decision0making processes.
  3. A suite of funding for early intervention and further sustained support should be reviewed and, in light of that review, reinstated and supplemented to address educational disadvantage as a result of socio-economic factors. Short sighted cuts and ‘savings’ made during these formative years will ultimately result in further and greater public spending to address the resultant societal issues in the future.
  4. The Holiday Hunger Scheme, Free Period Products Scheme and support for school uniform costs are vital interventions recognising genuine needs in order to mitigate socio-economic barriers to participation in education. These schemes should be immediately reinstated or have full funding restored.
  5. Evaluation of the Happy Healthy Minds programme should be expedited to ensure that the interventions delivered have an evidence-base of positive outcomes, and to preclude ineffective programmes and those with potentially negative outcomes. Funding should be prioritised for early intervention and prevention programmes, and those that involve capacity building and wellbeing support for school staff. This should include the introduction of Emotional Wellbeing Teams in School, and further rollout of the Education Authority’s School Staff Wellbeing Project.
  6. The Book Start Baby scheme should be reinstated to ensure that access to learning resources and parent support is equitable across the constituent parts of the UK.
  7. Continue to prioritise and invest in Early interventions, where the evidence shows you get the biggest impact. This should be supported through investment in the graduate workforce to support children and families who are most vulnerable in the early years. Investment in Sure Start should be increased and made sustainable to widen the reach to meet those who are educationally disadvantaged.
  8. In assessing the impact of funding reductions, the Department of Education NI should take account of the high levels of disadvantage among particular minority ethnic and migrant groups and the disproportionate effects that cuts to services are likely to have on these groups. The Department should also recognise the interlinkages between these programmes and the risk that cuts to one area of service may affect families’ ability to access and engage with other services.
  9. The Department for Education NI should prioritise its End-to-End Review of SEN in NI, and that this would facilitate an urgent evidence-based root and branch reform of SEN policy and practice including the requisite funding to complete the Education Authority’s SEND Transformation Programme as soon as possible. Following 15 years of protracted SEN review, we recommend further that ambitious SMART targets are set, monitored, and reported for the delivery of real change, prioritising children’s needs and improving the delivery of services by the Education Authority, health professionals, schools, Initial Teacher Education providers and others.
  10. The Department of Education NI should recognise the role that the learning environment plays in facilitating pupil attitudes, behaviour and attainment as well as staff retention, and that the Department of Education NI restores and extends their financial commitment to investing in the schools estate, addressing the chronic maintenance backlog and committing to an ambitious capital build programme.
  11.  The Department of Education NI should reinstate funding for its digital devices programme as a matter of urgency to provide equitable access to online learning for all children and young people, irrespective of social background.

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