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Education Funding: Community Groups

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

5. What recent discussions he has had with community groups on the potential impact of changes in the level of funding for education in Northern Ireland. (905485)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are acutely aware of the challenges facing the education sector in Northern Ireland. He has met member organisations of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action to discuss these issues, and I have been engaging with stakeholders about the wider cost of division in education, which a report by researchers working independently at Ulster University recently estimated was an extraordinary £226 million per year. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be preferable for the Northern Ireland Executive to be restored so that they may make decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland, including the right level of funding for education.

The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has announced that it will not proceed with proposed cuts to early years, extended schools and youth service programmes, which is broadly welcomed by community groups. Will the Minister confirm whether the Northern Ireland Office took direct action and advised on how guidance should be interpreted?

We are always willing to work closely with the Northern Ireland civil service, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we have put in place an Act of Parliament to formalise arrangements by which decisions are taken by Northern Ireland civil servants during this governance gap. We will continue to work closely with civil servants, but if he would like to discuss a specific concern more closely with me, I will be glad to meet him. The answer to the problem is something that I think the whole House agrees on: it would be preferable to have locally accountable, devolved Government restored as soon as possible to take those decisions.

Our Prime Minister has described education as the

“closest thing to a silver bullet there is”.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has heard concerns about the fact that Northern Ireland’s education budget is going down as the budgets in the rest of the UK are going up. Will the Minister make the case for further investment in education in Northern Ireland and continue to pursue integration, which is crucial to the future success of education?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. Integration is central not only to the Government’s policy but to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I am rather grateful that there has been some small controversy over the Ulster University report on the cost of division. We must have that conversation. If we are spending £600,000 a day on maintaining a system within which only 7% of children are educated in formal integrated schools and, overwhelmingly, children are educated separately as Catholics or Protestants, we should have a serious conversation about the cost of that system.

Universities recently wrote a joint letter to the Secretary of State warning that his budget will force them to cut student places and will have a “fundamental and dangerous impact” on the future of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister carry out an assessment of the effect that a loss of student placements would have on Northern Ireland’s economy, so that the House can be fully informed of the long-term impacts of the budget?

We are in frequent conversation with the vice-chancellors. The hon. Gentleman will remember that we have taken a power to commission advice and to consult, and he will know that there is a need to look at revenue raising. All those things come together and point in a direction on which I hope, in the end, there will be consensus: to ensure that the excellent higher education sector in Northern Ireland continues to be a beacon of great education for the world.