Education – our choice, our opportunity

An article on the inefficient delivery of education in Northern Ireland within the context of a public expenditure crisis.

It is now more than a decade since Tony Blair first talked about ‘education, education, education’. Following this, UK education spending doubled but this coincided with a fall in relative international education performance according to the PISA test. Although admittedly school exam results have improved year-on-year and a higher share of young people than ever are entering university. Scores for PISA, an internationally standardised assessment of 15-year-olds, for the latest year available (2006), show how other countries have quickly caught up with NI (and GB) and started to overtake them.  For example South Korea and Estonia, and not only the more established high-achievers such as Finland, are now outperforming NI.  Also, NI pupils had a wider spread of attainment than all other countries assessed, and the Department of Education’s figures show 2 in 5 of school-leavers across years 12-14 in 2008/09 left school without at least 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English. This matters, because education and skills are key pillars of competitiveness and NI will have to become more internationally competitive to get the economy back on track.

Given the public finance challenge facing the UK Coalition Government, the decision to rein in the deficit sooner rather than later, and the inevitable knock-on impact this will have on the block grant, our education sector will more than likely have to operate in a very different fiscal environment, and for possibly the next two parliaments.  Unlike the health budget, it is highly unlikely that the education budget will be ‘ring-fenced’. So the sector will have to brace itself for cuts – potentially up to 25% over the next four years. If the cuts are implemented across the board to front-line services and without any major change in how education is delivered, there is potential for long-term damage to the quality of learning and to the school estate – the so-called ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

From the outside, the structure of NI’s school system is unusually complex, with a range of management types and provision on a denominational and gender basis. Over time there has developed an excess of school places and small average school sizes, although this has also been partly brought about by a long-term decline in pupil numbers. Financial inefficiencies have consequently crept in and some smaller schools will struggle to meet the Curriculum Entitlement Framework (which pledges a range of subject choices to students at secondary level). These circumstances, however, point the way for the Executive to do things differently and get ‘more for less’.

‘Shared education’ is one option to consider, an approach whereby the sector deliver services in a collaborative and joined-up manner. Resource sharing is one practical method through which financial savings can be made – pooling, for example, sports equipment, science laboratories, ICT equipment and teachers. Amalgamation of schools – which in some locations may mean integrated education – is another form of more shared education.   According to a Millward Brown survey in 2008, support for shared and integrated education is higher than many might think:  “79% of parents and grandparents with children of school age or younger supported schools sharing facilities with the nearest school even if from a different type (sector)”. “When asked what type of school they would prefer their children or grandchildren to attend, more than 4 in 10 (43%) stated that they would prefer that they attended an integrated school”.

The UK Comprehensive Spending Review takes place next month, which will clarify the future spending environment in NI. The Executive must now explore what alternatives are available for education delivery here, if there is an appetite to do ‘more for less’.  Ultimately the goal for the Executive must though still be the delivery of efficient, high-quality and fair education for our children today and tomorrow.

Against the backdrop set out in this article, the Executive needs to ask itself whether it is prepared to continue to fund the current 1,100+ schools, financing a choice of schools on a denominational basis from a shrinking funding pot for possibly the next two parliaments. Unlike certain aspects of public policy, in the case of education, it is our choice and no-one else’s in these difficult times.

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