Heaton Harris’s threat may end an Extended School policy that none of the local parties ever seriously owned..

I was asked to come on Nolan this morning to comment on a story I might otherwise have missed. It’s part of a bigger play the NIO seems to be using to put added pressure on the DUP to suspend its boycott of the Stormont institutions.

In the detail it’s rather telling about just what a free ride our political class has been taking since the re-start of the institutions back in 2007, which sadly, in reality never really survived the demise of the former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The controversy arises around a proposal to cut what was when it was introduced back in 2006 a pretty nifty policy which developed way of getting albeit pretty limited resources to schools serving populations struggling economically and socially.

The Extended Schools programme encourages clusters of schools to come together and provide extra help for kids who are struggling for one reason or another. It was set up with five high level sets of desired outcomes as follows:

(i) being healthy, (ii) enjoying learning and achieving, (iii) living in safety and with stability, (iv) experiencing economic and environment well-being and (v) contributing positively to community and society

Yet, over time, as school budgets have fallen behind even before the current cost of living crisis, schools have had to dig into the fund to help more core expenses. So the threat to the scheme is more than just some add on to the core functions of the school.

The wider context is that the UK government is now talking tough on a £300 million overspend (presumably because there’s been no budget to adjust for rising costs and no Executive Office (the new name for OFMdFM) to negotiate with Whitehall.

All manner of unpopular things are being threatened, like billing separately for Water (it’s currently paid out of the regional rate), removing free travel on public transport for the over 60s, and the removal of free prescriptions for all.

But the truth is that none of those issues do what the Extended Schools programme does, which is to cleverly target extra resource vulnerable children within struggling communities. Now, ask yourself which of our local parties devise such a policy?

None of them. As best I can figure the minister responsible was likely David Hanson as Minister of State at the NIO in early 2006, about a year before the Executive returned in May 2007. So this is case of what you don’t own you won’t miss.

This is why I doubt Heaton Harris’s pressure will work. The DUP and Sinn Féin didn’t come to dominate Northern Irish politics today by touting anything they’ve ever done in office, their respective successes are based on getting one over on their rivals.

Both parties have held the education por folios and the best that can be said for either is that neither particularly interfered with letting officials get on with various improving programmes, but neither did they offer any impactful initiatives of their own.

However, in the background, the news came through that Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Michael McGrath announced a likely a €10b surplus for the Republic, expected to rise to €20b by 2026. Not a great look for a unionist party effectively on strike.

There’s a lesson here for all parties: to control the future, you must pay attention to the quality of decisions you are offering voters in the present. The Republic is hardly a trouble free zone but it at least politicians actually respond to public demands.


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