Education Minister forced to cut budget for buildings and projects by at least €19m to pay for special education and extra teachers

Education Minister Joe McHugh

Katherine Donnelly

Education Minister Joe McHugh was forced to cut his budget for buildings and other infrastructural projects, such as IT, by at least €19m, to divert funding to special education and the recruitment of extra teachers.

Mr McHugh said because of the pressure on frontline services he had “an understanding developed” with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPER) “to move funding from capital to current”.

The minister referred specifically to the ongoing increase in the school-going population, as well the rising demand for specialist school places for children with additional needs.

There will be 581 new teachers - 408 of whom will be working with children with special needs - as well as an additional 1,064 special needs assistants (SNAs)

The Department of Education estimate for capital spending next year is down 2pc, against an average increase of 11pc across all Government departments.

It means a €19m drop, from €941m in 2019 to €922m in 2020 - the first such reduction in six years - with higher and further education taking the biggest hit.

However, schools are not escaping and the spending estimate for buildings, as well as other capital projects, has been trimmed from €672m in 2019 to €670m. Final decisions have yet to be taken on how that funding will be allocated.

Mr McHugh said the 2020 allocation for schools would support about 60 new building projects, as well as 40 existing projects, delivering up to 25,000 school places.

The minister also said that the overall €12bn investment in education capital projects was ring-fenced under Project Ireland 2040.

By contrast, the Department of Health’s capital budget will rise by €112m over and above the 2019 figure, while the Department Justice is getting a considerable €70m increase.

Most of the spending increase for Education next year has been absorbed by the employment of extra teachers to cater for the demographic demand and requirements in the area of special needs.

Speaking at a post-Budget briefing, Mr McHugh identified the grant to schools for day to day running costs, which has increased by 2.5pc, as an area where he would have wished to have delivered more.

As reaction to the Budget continued, CPSMA (Catholic Primary School Management Association) general secretary Seamus Mulconry turned his sights on Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

He said Mr McHugh had “correctly identified the areas in need of increased investment in primary education but his colleague the Minister failed to deliver the required level of investment needed to address growing strains in the primary education system.”

“Minister Donohoe has once more penalised prudent primary schools by providing the absolute minimum he could in increased capitation while rewarding the profligate in Health who had overspent by €300m with huge increases.

“If Irish primary schools had the annual overspend from health we would have the best primary school system in the world.”

Meanwhile details of the staffing concession to small schools has emerged, with a reduction of one in the pupil thresholds for appointing and retaining teachers in schools with up to four teachers.

From September 2020, a school with 83 pupils will be able to appoint a fourth teacher, and, ay retain a fourth teacher with 80 pupils. The corresponding figures for a third teacher and a second teacher are 53/50 and 17/16.

Meanwhile, the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) representing TU Dublin and the institutes of technology welcomed the multi-annual fund of €90m to assist the development technological universities.

However, the university sector expressed disappointment.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) said Budget did not address the “growing gap in core funding of our third level system.”

The IUA also called for more funds from the National Training Fund (NTF) to be used in higher education.

The IUA said it was notable that a total of €134m for third-level education was drawn from the NTF created from employers’ levies.

“But, on top of this, there are unspent reserves of in excess of €500m remaining in the NTF. More of these reserves must now be used to fund the higher education deficit.”