School funding cuts in the North of Ireland
A movement struck dumb
3 February 2018
On January 24th the head of the Education Authority in the North, Gavin Boyd, announced that he was returning the budget plans of 632 schools on the grounds that they breached the financial constraints that they were subject to. This is despite constant cuts in resources and the fact that teacher pay increases, for years set at 1%, are now set at zero. EA functionaries will visit schools and "help" them produce more realistic budgets. Only 239 schools submitted budgets within guidelines.
What will the outcome of help from the EA be? On the one side are the genuine needs of the pupils, on the other the cuts to the public sector budget. Human need will be put to one side. Teaching and ancillary staff will be sacked. Special needs will be ignored. Class sizes will increase. If actual bankruptcy follows we will see full-scale privatisation.
Parents can avoid this by exercising choice. Money will place your child in the right school. It is no accident that the education report on school finance was followed by a further report that the popularity of the private 11+ tests had surged. The middle class will pay through the nose for education. The working class will be left to their fate.
The story of education is a metaphor for the inability to bring forward a reform agenda in the North. The Good Friday Agreement included a commitment to integrated education. That has been supplanted by expensive schemes for shared or integrating education - mechanisms designed to divert away from true integration.
Sinn Fein abolished the 11+, only to see selection accelerate and grammar schools go from strength to strength. Promises made to Irish medium education were not kept.
The Education Authority was
proclaimed as a force for modernising education. The CEO,
Gavin Boyd, had a background in selling coal and was to introduce the rationality of the private sector. He received a high salary waiting in the sidelines over years of sectarian squabbling when the Authority was being established. The final agreement, far from replacing the old sectarian authorities, simply bolted them onto the new structure.
The EA has been a force for establishing that teachers should bear the blame for educational failure. Social class and poverty were largely discounted as factors in school achievement. Now the EA’s main role is revealed - to institute wide-ranging cuts and force schools to live within the set budgets. The needs of children will take second place.
Yet the most shocking aspect of the crisis is the silence of the trade union leadership. How can they stand by while working class education is gutted?
The answer is quite simple. The unions accepted the "Fresh Start" Agreement, involving a mass transfer of capital from the public to the private sector. They argued that the workers had to sacrifice to save Stormont. The local Assembly fell anyway and they now argue that it must be reestablished as quickly as possible to save the workers. Local commentators have pointed out that health failings in Britain are instantly identified as due to years of savage government cuts. Here, where the same process is in operation, union leaders continue to argue that the urgent need is to reboot the sectarian circus at Stormont. In the case of education, where the Assembly has constantly promoted sectarian and class privilege, this “bring back Stormont” argument becomes simply ludicrous.
There is a common belief that there is some level of decency below which capitalism will not fall. This is an illusion. Standards in Education, Health and Housing arose out of class struggle. Trade unions, political parties and reformist programmes were the mechanisms credited with winning change. In the era of late capitalism these leaders have opted for the path of least resistance and have joined a race to the bottom. The welfare state is disappearing before our eyes with acceptance or even collaboration by traditional working class organizations. A new fight will need new structures, a new revolutionary programme that puts human needs first.