Unions call for major review of education system in Northern Ireland

By Rebecca Black and Michael McHugh, Press Association

A teachers’ union official has called for a major review of the education system in Northern Ireland.

Representatives from three unions gave evidence to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into the funding of education in the region.

As Northern Ireland marked two years without devolved government, the unions urged a major review of the education system, similar to a review of the health system which was carried out by Professor Rafael Bengoa.

Representatives from three teachers’ unions gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (Westminster/PA)

The budget for schools has reduced by about 10% in real terms over the past five years.

The committee previously heard about how parents at some schools are donating essentials such as toilet rolls and that school staff are being made redundant.

In 2015, the previous five education and library boards in Northern Ireland were replaced with the Education Authority, a single body to administer the sector.

Union representatives questioned how it is performing.

Geri Cameron, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, Northern Ireland, said they want transparency.

“We want to be able to demonstrate that it is value for money. If it isn’t then review it and change it, but we are not able to get that transparency and we really need that at the moment,” she told the committee.

“The money that is available, we simply don’t know if it is being deployed effectively in the best way that it can.”

When asked on Wednesday whether the return of devolved government and an education minister would help, Ms Cameron responded: “It would certainly be a very good place to start.”

Gerry Murphy, of INTO, called for a Bengoa-style review of the education system (Westminster/PA)

Gerry Murphy, Northern Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, called for a review of the education system.

“The immediate short-term solution is invest now, and then let’s sit down, all of us together, and plan a way forward,” he told the committee.

“They did it in health through Bengoa, I can’t see why we couldn’t, as an educational community, sit down together and sort a way forward for ourselves.”

Education is only one element of the public services feeling the effect after years with no ministers to take decisions.

Scores of pubs have closed due to unreformed red tape and taxation while major road building projects have been delayed.

Sinn Fein’s late Stormont deputy first minister Martin McGuinness stepped aside two years ago on Wednesday in protest at his former powersharing partner the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme.

Devolved government has not been functioning at Stormont for two years (Niall Carson/PA)

The impasse has created a decision-making logjam.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said 91% of the total budget for day-to-day running costs went towards funding schools and pupils.

She added: “However, the department fully acknowledges the financial challenges facing schools and continues to make the case each year for additional funding, based on an analysis of the financial pressures facing the sector.”

Endless rounds of political talks have failed to restore the Stormont institutions.

An official probe into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and its threatened massive overspending is due to report later this year.

The DUP wants to re-enter Government immediately but refuses to meet a republican demand for official protection for the Irish language.

The unionist party’s stance against abortion and same-sex marriage has rankled with its former partner in government.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has been unwilling to introduce full Direct Rule from Westminster, but has passed a budget to keep public services running and intervened in piecemeal fashion in policing and addressing the legacy of the conflict.