Ruane Sets Out Challenges Ahead

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MINISTER for Education Caitriona Ruane has yesterday (13th January) published her budget plans for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15. This follows the publication of the Executive’s draft Budget in December. The Minister revealed that the outworking of the British Treasury’s withdrawal of £4billion from the Block Grant had left her with an overall gap of £300million in resource spend to cover by the end of the four year period with a particular challenge in the initial year with the need to find approximately £150million in savings. Explaining the situation the Minister said, “The Executive has agreed a draft Budget to cope with the swingeing cuts imposed by the British Government. That Budget removes 3.3% of my baseline in 2011-12 and allowing for a range of unavoidable pressures particularly on pay inflation and demography I have been faced with finding savings of over £300million per annum by the end of the Budget period. This will not be easy and will involve hard choices. “I am pleased that the Executive managed to bring more money to the table and that the education allocation was increased from what was originally proposed. I will also be bidding for any additional money raised by the Executive when it is being allocated. [caption id="attachment_10524" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Education Minister Caitríona Ruane has published her budget plans. "][/caption] “Now I have published my proposals, I want to engage with all education stakeholders in order to hear their views and to build a sense of common purpose to face these challenges.” The Minister indicated that her central focus remained on raising standards and improving access to education for all, “I have put in place a suite of policies which are beginning to drive up standards to improve the life chances of our school leavers and provide a foundation for improved economic performance in the North. Central to this is Every School a Good School. I intend that we continue to focus on improving standards despite the financial challenges. My priorities in shaping my budget proposal have been to reduce bureaucracy, drive up efficiency, eliminate duplication and protect the front line as much as possible.” The Minister has decided that a number of important spending areas should be afforded protection. These include the allocations for Special Educational Needs, Extended Schools, School Counselling Services and Early Years. In deciding on the allocation of the budget, the Minister has afforded particular priority to the extension of eligibility for Free School Meals Entitlement (FSME) to include from September 2011 Key Stage 2 pupils, with an additional £1million in 2011-12. The Minister confirmed that some savings would be sought from school budgets over the four year period, “The Aggregated School Budget which goes directly to schools is £1.2billion the bulk of my overall budget. It is simply not realistic for it to be totally protected from the impact of the Whitehall cuts. It is time for us to address the issue of the school estate. This will be a huge challenge and will go beyond the budget period and party politics but we need to be realistic, we need to be honest but we need also to be courageous. Our children are our future and this challenge cannot be shirked any longer.” The Minister shared her concern about the front loading of the savings requirement in 2011-12: “We need to realise savings of £150million next year. I am concerned that significant reductions to school budgets at such short notice will have a damaging effect on schools and children. To mitigate this and to allow us to plan properly for rationalisation I propose to reclassify some £41million of my Capital budget as resource in 2011-12 to allow a more measured application of reductions to school budgets from 2012-13 on.” Ms Ruane made it clear that this was a difficult decision, “I have lobbied hard for funds for new schools in particular and have made real progress in recent years. A switch of this order from capital to resource is unheralded but is a measure of the difficulties we face.” The Minister concluded, “I want an open debate on these proposals and will be engaging directly with key stakeholders. I am keen to build a sense of common purpose across the education sector and the community at large in facing these challenges. It is vital that we focus on the needs of children at all times.”

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