Stormont crisis: 'Shameful decline of education funding a result of political choice'
THE "shameful decline of education funding is a result of political choice", a teaching union has said.
In a scathing criticism of the situation faced by schools across the north, Graham Gault of the National Association of Head Teachers in Northern Ireland said: "We keep hearing rhetoric from politicians claiming that education is a priority... the figures suggest that this is really not the case".
It comes as recent estimates suggest the financial deficit faced by the Education Authority in 2022/23 has risen to £300 million.
The Department of Education has also been told it faces significant cuts to its "current spending trajectory".
The warning was contained in a budget for Stormont departments set out by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris in the ongoing absence of an executive.
Speaking at a recent conference organised to discuss the next steps for special educational needs (SEN) provision in Northern Ireland, Mr Gault said that "without an unprecedented influx of hundreds of millions of pounds... there is no future".
He told the Policy Forum for Northern Ireland online event that support and provision for children with SEN as well as funding were among the vital issues facing schools as a result of the political stalemate.
"Without an unprecedented influx of hundreds of millions of pounds, our provision for our most vulnerable children will continue to follow the same trajectory of decline that has marked our provision for the last decade," he said.
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Looking to the current funding deficit facing the education system in the north, Mr Gault said: "We keep hearing rhetoric from politicians claiming that education is a priority.
"The figures suggest that this is really not the case and I contest that the shameful decline of education funding is a result of political choice… political choice in both London and Belfast.
"With this being the context in which we are having this conversation, I think we need to be realistic.
"We have a profession full of dedicated, caring and exceptionally hard-working, child-focused professionals yet, in our special school sector, where schools have only partially delegated budgets, these professionals have very limited autonomy.
"The nature of centralised control severely hampers school staff in being responsive to the ever-fluctuating needs of their children.
"In our mainstream schools, special educational needs provision is wholly underfunded, with almost non-existent training and non-existent capacity building.
"Children with complex needs are allocated places in mainstream settings with inadequate support and inadequate staffing, leaving children floundering and, sadly and destructively, parents and schools in conflict because both are grappling around trying to fight the system for support."
Mr Gault also said it was "shocking" that the "absence of adequate funding has hampered the referral and assessment processes for schools to such an extent that school leaders and SENCOs are having to make very consequential decisions about who in their school has the most pressing need to be prioritised for referral".
He added that with "wholly inadequate specialist input available, schools are left to muddle through".
Mr Gault said that in terms of the "next steps... there needs to be a seismic shift".
"The people in schools who are delivering learning, teaching and safeguarding to our most vulnerable and precious children are crying out for help," he said.
"In my view, the next steps for special needs provision in Northern Ireland are very frightening indeed.
"I really, sincerely hope that I am wrong."