Time has come for clamour of protest for financial investment in education
EDUCATIONAL system "close to financial tipping point".
These stark words, quoted from a report compiled by the auditor general in last Wednesday's Irish News, should set alarm bells ringing in everyone who has an interest in the welfare of our children.
They come as no surprise to those of us who have been endeavouring to maintain equilibrium in an embattled education system over the last seven years of austerity.
Why our children's education has been chosen as the main loser in a financial crisis, caused by the greed of some of those in control of the banking system, remains a mystery.
Underfunding of schools has resulted in over-worked and underpaid teachers, leaving us with unresolved industrial disputes between employers and educational trade unions. The following statistics graphically illustrate the essence of the problem:
:: Between 2013 and 2017 there has been a 9.3 per cent real terms reduction in NI educational funding (auditor general)
::The Age Weighted Pupil Unit, which calculates the average spending on each pupil, has gone down from £2,025 in 2012/2013 to currently stand at £1,998, in spite of a current inflation rate of 2.4 per cent per annum (DENI)
:: If the Education Authority budget remains at its current level it will be left with a funding gap of over £350m by 2020 (Gavin Boyd EA chief executive)
:: 315 out of 1,105 schools in this jurisdiction have ended the financial year in deficit, seven of these having debts of over £1 million (auditor general)
:: Teachers' pay here has fallen behind inflation by around 20 per cent since 2010 (NASUWT)
:: Classroom teachers and middle leaders work on average 54.4 hours per week, while school leaders average 60 hours (Department for Education Teacher Workload Survey 2016)
These statistics regarding funding, teacher workload and pay levels are inextricably linked. Reductions in staffing levels, caused by school managers having to attempt to balance ever-decreasing budgets, have led to increases in class sizes and ultimately more work outside school hours for teachers.
Even more worrying is the reality that funding for our most vulnerable children with special educational needs (SEN) is becoming increasingly inadequate.
The Education Authority, who centrally fund these needs, estimate that costs associated with delivering SEN will increase by around £150m in the year ahead - as things stand, the money is just not there. As a direct consequence of SEN budget cuts in recent years NASUWT members have reported increased waiting time for educational psychology services, withdrawal of classroom assistants from children with special needs and, most disturbingly, an increased number of physical assaults on fellow pupils and teachers by SEN students. Our children and our teachers deserve better.
As a teacher of over 30 years standing, as a teachers' trade union representative and as a parent of a child in the early stages of her educational journey, alarm bells are ringing loudly in my head. I believe in the power of education to change lives for the better and cannot idly watch as under-investment threatens its fundamental effectiveness. The time has come for a clamour of protest and a public demand for major financial investment into education, before irreparable damage is done to a system which is currently just about holding on.
:: Eamonn McDowell is a local NASUWT teachers' union national executive member.