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SCHOOL BUDGETS JUST DON'T ADD UP; Deficits of more than a PS1m at 7 post-primaries; Desperate education chiefs battling to balance the books.

Byline: MAURICE FITZMAURICE

FEARS have been expressed for Northern Ireland's education system as schools desperately try to balance the books.

A leading watchdog has warned today the sector is "coming close to a financial tipping point" as a result of forced overspending.

One school in particular has a deficit of PS1.6million while six further postprimary institutions had gone more than PS1million into the red.

The Audit Office says for the financial year 2017/2018 schools are PS48million overspent - the first time the figure has outstripped schools' surpluses which now sit at PS39million.

A report published today states cash allocated to schools increased between 2012/13 and 2016/17.

But it added: "In real terms, that is taking inflation into account, there was a 9.3% reduction in the General Schools Budget during this period."

Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "It is clear the system is coming close to a tipping point and action needs to be taken as a matter of urgency."

The report comes just days after a Commons committee was told by education chiefs "schools are straining every sinew to try to live within their budgets".

Education Authority bosses also told the inquiry they are facing a "significant maintenance backlog" of around PS360million.

EA chair Sharon O'Connor told the Committee that "once you have cut all the available and immediate savings, you are left with losing people and that has a direct impact on the quality of education".

The Committee was also told that since 2011 "the spending power of the education budget has gone down by PS233 million".

And in a stark assessment, the EA told MPs "schools are estimating they will overspend their common funding formula allocations by around about PS32million to PS33million".

They added this comes after schools identified "just under PS11million of additional income and savings".

Having listened to the evidence, Committee member Democratic Unionist MP Jim Shannon said the "education system is on the verge of crisis".

Committee chair Dr Andrew Murrison also questioned the EA panel about a PS136million underspend by the Department of Education. However, it is the Mirror's understanding department officials are to write to the Committee disputing that figure.

One source dismissed any suggestion there was PS136million unspent, adding complex accounting issues and budget estimates drawn up last November were at issue.

"It is clear the system is coming close to The Audit Office report backs the EA assessment, stating between 2013 and 2017 tipping point the "number of Controlled and Maintained schools in KIERAN DONNELLY yesterday Northern Ireland with a surplus fell from 856 to 711 whilst the number with a deficit increased from 197 to 315".

The largest deficit at a post-primary school at March 31, 2017 was found at Drumcree College in Portadown (PS1.6million). Six further schools had deficits of PS1million or more at March 31, 2017 - Strabane Academy (PS1.4million), Crumlin Integrated College PS1.4million), City of Armagh High School (PS1.3million), Coleraine College (PS1.1million), St Eugene's College, Enniskillen (PS1.1million) and St Columban's College, Kilkeel (PS1million).

Twelve schools were visited during the review to obtain an understanding of the financial issues facing them.

The report found schools in the controlled and maintained sectors have been trying to cut costs by cutting back on books, equipment, photocopying and postage.

The report also noted some schools have made efforts to reduce staff costs by reducing contracted hours for teachers or employing teaching assistants instead of full-time teachers.

PS1MILLION SCHOOL DEFICITS IN 2017

Drumcree College in Portadown: PS1.6million

Strabane Academy: PS1.4million

Crumlin Integrated College: PS1.4million

City of Armagh High School: PS1.3million

Coleraine College: PS1.1million

St Eugene's College, Enniskillen: PS1.1 million

St Columban's College, Kilkeel: PS1million

315 Number of schools with a deficit, up from 197 9.3% reduction in the General Schools Budget 711 Number of schools with a surplus, down from 856 It is clear the system is coming close to a tipping point KIERAN DONNELLY yesterday

CAPTION(S):

CONCERN Mr Donnelly

TOUGH TIMES Watchdog has told of fears for schools
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 16, 2018
Words:676
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