Government urged to clarify impact of ‘missing millions’ on education budget

McHugh insists cut will ‘not impact’ on delivery of thousands of school places next year

Students, teachers and parents from North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School protest outside Leinster House, Dublin recently. The school is still awaiting a permanent home.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Students, teachers and parents from North Wicklow Educate Together Secondary School protest outside Leinster House, Dublin recently. The school is still awaiting a permanent home. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Government has been urged to clarify how a cut in the capital budget for education next year will impact on the delivery of school buildings and other urgent projects.

Opposition TDs claim that thousands of pupils risk spending longer in prefabs and ageing school buildings as a result of a €19 million cut to the capital budget for education next year.

However, Minister for Education Joe McHugh said on Friday that the reduction will not have “any material impact on the delivery of the school building programme in 2020”.

His department confirmed earlier this week that the capital budget this year is €922 million, down €19 million on last year. This is the first cut to the capital budget in six years.

Diverted

The funding is being diverted into day-to-day spending on resources for special needs and general teaching provision in order to “protect front-line services”.

The school section of the capital budget for next year is €620 million, a €2 million cut on this year’s figure.

Mr McHugh said next year’s allocation will support 60 new school building projects due to go to construction next year which will deliver in excess of 30,000 school places and replacement of about 600 prefabs.

He also insisted that minor and summer works grants for the renovation and maintenance of schools will be delivered, as normal.

“There will be no material difference in terms of our plans for next year. Yes, this budget doesn’t reflect where I wanted to be as minister for education in terms of what my plans were 12 months ago or six months ago... but we will absolutely ploughahead with what we planned long before the no-deal Brexit budegt,” he said.

He did not say, however, whether the budget for further education or higher education may be cut.

Mr McHugh said a detailed breakdown was being finalised as part of the overall estimates process for next year.

‘Missing millions’

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne said his party is demanding an explanation of what exact projects will lose out due to the “missing millions.”

“We were told that funds for the National Development Plan were set in stone and we now see a reduction in the last-minute budget negotiations,” Mr Byrne said.

“This comes at a time when construction costs are going up, so this will certainly leave schools and further education projects in the lurch.”

Mr Byrne said that just last week plans to build a new further education college in Dunboyne, Co Meath, were shelved.

“This is a colleges which is renting more than a dozen leases for 960 pupils. How many other projects have been shelved?”

Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the cut will directly impact on children who will now have to spend more time in prefabs.

“We are supposed to believe the spin from Government that this won’t impact on the school building programme,” he said.

“Construction inflation for 2020 has been projected at anywhere up to 10.5per cent. It was over 7per cent in 2018. That means the budget for school building has to increase just to keep building what was planned. In reality, the cut will see the mothballing of dozens of projects.”

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said the cut was a cause of major concern for parents, teachers and pupils who are desperately awaiting new promised school buildings or urgent safety repairs.

“The Minister for Education claimed the cut to the capital budget was to keep ‘frontline’ services open in our schools. This is a false argument. Parents, staff and students certainly see their school buildings as being the frontline,” she said.

“It’s all the more disgraceful at a time the economy is in recovery and the government is actively fighting Apple paying billions in taxes to this country.”