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Ulster's illusion of investment

With devolved government suspended in the north of Ireland, the British government has set about dismantling much of the province's training infrastructure.

Barry Gardiner, the British minister responsible for education, has highlighted the worrying statistic that three out of every 10 adults are economically inactive.

In the six counties, this amounts to approximately half a million people.

Set against this is the fact that between 20 and 27 per cent of the population struggle with the basic skills (essential skills as they are called in the six counties) of numeracy and literacy.

The Government has set itself the target of reducing this essential skills deficiency by 12 per cent over the next three years. In this context, the Government announces that it will "increase" educational spending over the next three years to an amount that is no more than the total investment for the last financial year. This illusion of investment is complemented by what are called "efficiency savings" which end learndirect and Worktrack training programmes, and, in doing so, run the risk of destroying the infrastructure which is best-placed to address the skills deficit.

This strategic move is complemented by the return of pound;50 million to the Treasury while the five education and library boards - which fund schools here - are under-resourced by approximately pound;25 million per year, leaving services from special needs to school meals at risk.

Learndirect was established with a considerable fanfare across the 26 district council areas, with a huge investment in premises and staff. The programme to support an e-learning strategy was to be offered to those with numeracy and literacy difficulties as an opportunity to get rid of their "gremlins", with the support of a tutor. And the employed were to be given an opportunity to up-skill.

Worktrack was a voluntary wage-based employment opportunity that matched the unemployed person with the right job while building in the appropriate training. New Deal, a compulsory programme, has had an 8 per cent employment success rate and Jobskills 13 per cent.

Worktrack achieved 40 per cent cross the six counties. This is part of an educational and learning landscape which is facilitating a collapse in early-years provision as the European cup of human kindness, which comes in the form of EU money for the six counties, dries up.

Senior management teams are struggling to meet the requirements of a widening curriculum without additional investment. Potential undergraduates from low and middle-income backgrounds will question the logic of incurring debts which look like mortgages.

This is a government with all the rhetoric of change but none of the substance. There is no investment to support an integrated and seamless educational process from childcare to a new post-14 curriculum onto skills targets and higher education because the Government will not increase the amount of tax it collects from those people who can most easily afford pay.

The "consultations" around post-16 education were smokescreen cover for disinvestment.

There is for this Government an acceptable level of unemployment and new proposals in relation to those in receipt of incapacity and disability benefits are about clawing money back from the poor and forcing people into low-paid jobs with equally poor conditions, rather than taxing the rich.

Rumour has it that every GPs' surgery here will get an "actively seeking work personal adviser" for the incapacitated and disabled when they arrive for to see the doctor.

I suppose the "redirection of investment into frontline services" the minister has talked about is something which must be happening in England.

Michael Ferguson is Sinn Fein's spokesperson for employment and learning

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