A Labour government would try to avert the spending crisis in Northern Ireland schools by re-allocating the province's budget. Paul McGill reports.
Labour has promised to look at ways of diverting more money to education and other priority services in Northern Ireland if it forms the next government.
The pledge will be warmly welcomed in view of the outcry about unprecedented spending cuts imposed in the coming financial year, which could mean more than 600 teacher redundancies.
The shadow education spokesperson, Tony Worthington, told The TES that an incoming Labour government would look at the entire Northern Ireland budget to see if it could be re-allocated to other priorities such as education and health.
The threat to teachers' jobs continues despite an announcement by Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland education minister, last week that another Pounds 3.9m had been found for schools and further education colleges. "This will alleviate some of the difficulties, although I recognise that many schools and colleges will still face difficult decisions," he said.
Labour's pledge underlies a commitment by Tony Blair to put education at the top of his agenda and the party's aim to take 250,000 young people off the dole. Any extra resources would be targeted at under-achieving schools.
The pledge will not have any direct impact on Labour's election prospects since it does not field candidates in Northern Ireland. Nor will the cuts directly affect the Tories since they have no seats in Northern Ireland and no prospect of any.
Local political parties have been vocal in opposition to the reductions. Earlier this month, for example, the Northern Ireland Forum unanimously condemned them.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist party, which has most to lose because of its support for the Government, had sought an urgent all-party meeting with the Prime Minister on the issue just before he announced the election timetable.
Teachers and other groups, ranging from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to the Confederation of British Industry, have also united against the reductions, which will form an important theme in the election campaign.
Two factors have produced the current spending crisis: an overall decline in Northern Ireland expenditure, which Labour claims amounts to Pounds 296m over three years; and the Government's decision to shift Pounds 120m from general services to security following the ending of the IRA ceasefire and the fall-out from the Drumcree Orange marches last July.
Reaction has included a fierce condemnation by the Council for Catholic-Maintained Schools, which claims its sector could lose 200 jobs. It demanded a review of spending to avoid wholesale damage to the education service.
The plight of schools controlled by the five Education and Library Boards is at least as serious. Information collated by David Allen, chairman of the Northern Ireland Teachers' Council, shows the North Eastern Board could lose 50 teachers to help meet a deficit of Pounds 3.8m.
Belfast expects to shed between 50 and 65 teachers because of a shortfall of Pounds 2.2m. In the South, a reduction of Pounds 2m is likely to mean the loss of more than 60 teaching jobs and in the West a deficit of Pounds 2.8m is likely to cost 75 teacher jobs.
Worst off is the South-east which, on top of the other reductions, faces cuts of Pounds 1.6m in each of the next two years because of previous overspending. It expects to have at least 200 fewer teachers next year, as well as shedding 60 or more ancillary posts and cutting Pounds 2m from libraries, youth, discretionary student awards and other services.
Mr Allen, who is also general secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, bitterly attacked the shift of money from education as "immoral, obscene and reprehensible". He said the Government was making the children of Northern Ireland the scapegoats for a security problem for which they were not responsible and which they did not create.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers are balloting members on industrial action over the cuts.