By Darragh Logue
The Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris shamelessly unveiled the Northern Ireland budget for 2023-24 indicating that overall spending would be slashed by 3.3%, representing a cut of approximately £800 million. Specifically, the annual funding for education is being cut by £70 million. When taking inflation into consideration the real-term impact of this cut will be significantly deeper than the initial figure suggests. The Minister declared this Department to be an ‘overspender’. However, with schools already struggling from a lack of resources over recent years, such a description is shameless.
It is working-class communities who will feel the worst impacts of these cuts. The Department for Education also announced that funding for the “Extended Schools Programme” would no longer be available. This project, launched in 2006, provided activities such as breakfast & homework clubs, sports, art and drama. The cuts to the Extended Schools Programme come on top of the ending of the Engage Programme, the Holiday Hunger Programme and the Happy Healthy Minds pilot. Funding for dedicated special educational needs (SEN) schools in Northern Ireland has also been cut in half.
University students are not being left unscathed either. Heaton-Harris has instructed officials in the Department for the Economy to investigate raising tuition fees from £4,630 per annum to £7,000, a whopping 51% increase. Universities like Queen’s University Belfast are multimillion-pound institutions that are increasingly more interested in profits over quality education. Perhaps if more money is to be found they could start by cutting their Vice Chancellor’s £315,000 salary, or dip into the £700 million in QUB’s financial reserves, instead of saddling students with even more debt.
Despite executive parties during the recent elections repeating false promises about their dedication to education, their actions in government tell a very different story. The restoration of Stormont will not be the solution to these problems. They have even admitted to their incapability of dealing with the question of radically improving the education sector; Diane Dodds said, “The problems in our budget existed when the executive and assembly were fully functioning, and their restoration will not be a panacea to the challenges we face.”
However, in contradiction to the inaction of the Executive, on picket lines across the country, teachers have been taking action against ballooning class sizes, staffing shortages due to poor pay and conditions, and the fact that teachers now have to use their own money for classroom supplies. These strikes will be vital, not only on the question of staff pay and conditions but also as a means to transform the education sector as a whole. A linking up of workers in the sector, parents and students in community-based campaigns for a real wage increase and to demand a no-cuts, needs-based budget would represent an incredible force for change. It is in such campaigns that we can find the solution to the crisis in the education system.