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Pressure on north's education greatest since war, union claims

Derek Baker said the north's schooling system was under 'considerable strain'. Picture by Chris Bellew

NORTHERN Ireland's largest teaching union has claimed the education sector is facing its greatest pressures since the end of the Second World War.

Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU) deputy general secretary Jacquie White was speaking after the head of the Department of Education warned that the north's schooling system is under "considerable strain" and facing severe financial challenges in the months ahead.

Permanent secretary Derek Baker spelled out the critical situation in his department's latest annual accounts.

His remarks came as Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into education funding in the region.

The inquiry will examine whether the current levels of funding are sufficient to meet the challenges facing the sector and what future the spending priorities in the sector should be.

Committee chair Andrew Murrison said education had been a "victim of the uncertainty" caused by last year's collapse of the Stormont executive.

Among the specific issues considered by MPs will be whether funds allocated are sufficient to improve educational outcomes and how additional money secured as part of the DUP's confidence and supply deal with the Tories should be managed.

The closing date for written submissions to the committee is August 31.

The inquiry would appear timely given the picture painted by Mr Baker in the latest Department of Education accounts.

They reveal the Education Authority overspent its budget by about £19m last year, largely as of increased spending on the special educational needs sector.

Mr Baker said that schools were facing unprecedented pressures and an increasing number were in the red.

UTU) deputy general secretary Jacquie White said the education sector's financial crisis was now "personal" to every child.

She said the report did not reveal anything her membership did not already know.

"Cuts in the classroom have meant that the system has never before since the Education Act of 1947 faced the kinds of pressures it is facing today – and back then we had just come out of a world war," she said.

"Something must be done before we go beyond the point of no return and it’s too late – a point which is getting perilously closer."

Alliance education spokesman Chris Lyttle MLA said a "Bengoa-style root and branch review" was required – a reference to Professor Rafael Bengoa's review of health provision.

“Alliance has been inundated with messages from parents, teachers and principals, all concerned about the growing pressures being put on our children’s education by increasing financial strain, excessive class sizes, poor buildings and inadequate special educational needs assistance among other issues," he said.

Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Rosemary Barton said no action was being taken to resolve the deepening funding crisis.

"The current situation is wholly untenable and I have come to the worrying conclusion that almost all savings that can be made by schools, have been made," said the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA.

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