Schools facing ‘spiral of debt’, principal warns

Education

Education

A Newtownabbey principal has warned that many local schools are facing serious financial hardship due to inadequate funding allocations.

The primary school headmaster, who does not wish to be identified, contacted the Times after it emerged that increases in school budgets won’t cover new staffing cost increases.

Claiming that schools across the Province will face “unprecedented cuts” during the period 2016-2019, he warned that his own school and others could be forced into “a spiral of debt”.

“Every nursery, primary and post-primary in the Province is facing a two per cent increase in National Insurance and a 4.1 per cent increase in superannuation over three years, as well as a one per cent increase in the pay of teachers and non-teaching staff each year for three years,” he explained.

“I believe every school will be facing a minimum five per cent budget cut for each of the next three years.

“At my school, teaching expenses have jumped by £30,000 a year but the Department has only given me about £6,000 a year to cover this, which is quite a significant budget cut.

“In a school of seven teachers to achieve that £30,000 target over three years it would equate to a teacher’s salary, meaning one teacher would have to be made redundant, and we are already operating on a skeleton staff.

“The Department of Education approved the number of teachers I have, but they haven’t given me enough money to pay their basic salaries.”

The principal fears that the increased pressure on school budgets will also affect pupils’ education.

“Under this scheme, classes will have to merge, you would be looking at class sizes of up to 35 in P6/P7,” he revealed.

“These new cuts mean I will be able to provide zero in terms of Special Educational Needs support.”

The frustrated principal accused the Department of Education (DE) of “manipulating the news agenda” by focussing on schools’ overall budget increase in the media without publicising the new staffing costs.

“It’s hypocritical and it was done in a very underhand way,” he continued. “The budgets were released considerably later this year.

“We went to a meeting and they told us they would protect school budgets, then the budgets were released in February and everyone was happy at the increase, but we were told not to make assumptions as staffing costs could change.

“Yet these weren’t released with the budgets, they just leaked out without any emails or notification being sent to schools.

“I had to ring up the Department to ask for my budget and they told me they had put it on the website.

“I spoke to my fellow principals in the local Principals’ Association and when people saw the big cuts it was horrendous.”

The head teacher says that some of his fellow principals in the local area have been hit even harder.

“The bigger the school the bigger the cut,” he continued. “One school is facing a massive deficit three times the size of ours.

“We didn’t get the information until last week and the new financial year has started so there is no time to put in place measures to turn this around.

“I think this was a tactical move by the DE to minimise our recourse.

“Our Principals’ Association is planning to meet soon to discuss a group response to these cuts.”

In a letter to principals seen by the Times, the Education Authority states: “The Department of Education’s allocation for schools delegated budgets under the Common Funding Formula Scheme in 2016-17 amounts to £1,167.5m, a decrease of £10m on the 2015-16 allocation.

“Schools will also have to factor into their financial planning the annual pay and non-pay inflationary pressures, including the changes in National Insurance costs, all of which are unfunded in 2016/17.”

In response to the Times’ queries, the Department for Education referred the paper to two press releases.

In the press release dated March 2, Education Minister John O’Dowd states: “In order to mitigate against reductions in school budgets, my Department has funded the 2015-16 Strategic Cost Reduction programme in schools. This will result in up to £12.5m of full year salary savings in 2016-17 for schools. I have also allocated three quarters of the additional £20m, announced by the Finance Minister on February 10 2016 and which will be made available to my Department as part of the June 2016-17 Monitoring round, to the Aggregated Schools Budget which is being announced today.

“The remaining £5m will be directed towards the Education Authority for Special Educational Needs services.”

The statement later claims that: “Funding Authorities will now issue formal Budget notification letters to their respective schools to confirm details of their budget shares.”

In the press release from March 9, Mr O’Dowd states that he has “managed to protect Sure Start, Early Years, Youth and Special Educational Needs funding from any reduction.”