Report revives prospects of NI schools funding shake-up
by Angus Macdonald
A MAJOR report from a Northern Ireland government advisory body released this week revives prospects for a radical shake-up in the way Catholic schools in the province are funded.
If the Stormont government agrees to implement the recommendations of the wideranging report, published this week by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights (SACHR), it could mean that hard-pressed Catholic education authorities will pay much less towards the capital costs of stateaided Catholic schools.
Currently 15 per cent of building and new project costs for Catholic maintained schools are borne by the Church, but Ireland's Catholic bishops have been pressing the Stormont government to reduce the level of this "voluntary contribution".
The Commission a government-funded but independent statutory body which advises the Northern Ireland Secretary of State for Education recommended that "there should be an in-depth review by all the parties concerned of the need for and status of the 15 per cent contribution to capital funding in Catholic schools."
Fr Malachy Murphy, administrator of the Down and Connor Diocesan Education Committee, welcomed the report's findings. "It was feasible when the contribution was a few hundred thousand pounds, but with budgets of £6 million and £7 million these days, it becomes an impossibility to pay 15 per cent," he said.
The report says that the establishment of a Northern Ireland curriculum has "restricted the extent of variance between schools" and argues that this gives grounds for a review of funding arrangements. It suggests that the capital contribution "may have given rise to sonic disadvantage accruing to Catholic pupils in terms of space and facilities."
Sources close to the Department of Education are optimistic that a ten or five per cent "voluntary contribution" will eventually be forthcoming, but indicate that Catholic education authorities may have to pay the price of less control over policy.
Any increase in state funding may be accompanied by demands for a corresponding reduction in Catholic representation on school boards of governors and trustees.
Ireland's Catholic bishops will be keen to avoid the example of Scotland, where Catholic schools have been 100 per cent statefunded since 1969. This has meant a gradual erosion of the power of Catholic education authorities, and in some cases they have been powerless to prevent the merging of Catholic and non-Catholic schools.
The SACHR report marks the conclusion of a major three-year education project designed to provide the Province's Education Department with an extensive body of in-depth research comparing Catholic and Protestant provision and attitudes on a range of issues including curricular emphasis, school size, and employment opportunities for pupils, as well as school funding.
Other recommendations include steps to redress the imbalance in science provision and performance between Catholic and Protestant schools, continued monitoring of policy reforms in both sectors, and an increase in the number of Catholics in the personnel of the province's Department of Education and Schools Inspectorate.
Northern Ireland's new Education Minister, Jeremy Hanky, welcomed the report, but gave no specific pledges regarding its detailed
recommendations. "The Commission has now set a challenging agenda for the future, on which we all need to move forward quickly in a spirit of cooperation," he said.
• Catholics are still underrepresented on the senior staff of Northern Ireland's public service according to the latest study from the Fair Employment Commission, The report based on a survey of 9,200 senior staff in 87 public bodies found that only 24.3 per cent of senior staff were Catholic compared to nearly 40 per cent among all public sector employees.