The Education budget was top of the agenda during today’s Questions to the Minister of Education. The 2015-16 budget will see a gap of £162.5m compared to the 2014-15 baseline. The difficulty of “achieving reductions of that scale within one year is extremely challenging, and maintaining all core services at current levels is simply not deliverable. ” The focus will be on maintaining front line services as much as possible. However as the aggregated schools budget represents 59% of the Department’s budget it will not be possible to fully protect it. Letters have been issued to schools forewarning them of the potential disruption.
Sandra Overend informed the Minister of letters she has received from concerned schools about the devastating impact that could see job losses, larger classes and a fall in the quality of education. The Minister argued that “if I were to look for £162 million in the remaining 41% of the budget, the Member would be asking me questions about why the boards were facing such a dramatic reduction in their services. Those services include transport, special educational needs provision, free school meals entitlement, school meals, youth services, Sure Start, which would face a greater reduction than it currently does — the list goes on.” There is no easy answer but Mr O’Dowd assured that he has endeavoured to maintain the school budget to the best level that he can.
Mickey Brady also asked the Minister about plans to introduce anti-bullying legislation. In 2013 the NI Anti-Bullying Forum undertook a review of legislation and proposed recommendations that are now being taken forward by the Department in conjunction with the forum. There was recognition that there needs to be more consistency in the approach to bullying adopted by schools. A public consultation is currently underway with an intention to introduce a Bill in May 2015.
The Minister also answered Members’ questions on Irish language development, school curriculum and primary school places in South Belfast and Carryduff.