I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for extending the invitation to the Minister of State, Deputy English and me to discuss my Department’s mid-year expenditure position for 2014, and the position for 2015. This is the first time both of us have had the opportunity to meet the committee. We look forward to fruitful and positive discussions on education and skills, which I know is of particular concern to each and every member present. I would also like to acknowledge the good work done by my predecessor, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who appeared before the joint committee on many occasions.
I will as requested keep this opening statement short in order to allow more time for discussion. As the Chairman already stated, my Department has provided some briefing slides for committee members which, together with material provided by the committee secretariat, will hopefully assist today’s discussions. I propose at this stage to expand only briefly on the slides provided, but I am of course happy to elaborate on any issues as they subsequently arise and to answer any questions..
The gross voted expenditure allocation for my Department for 2014 is €8.403 billion, made up of €7.85 billion in current expenditure and €546 million in capital expenditure. Added to this is €362 million in non-voted funding from the National Training Fund. The 2014 allocation took account of current expenditure savings and expenditure reductions of some €44 million, while at the same time seeking to protect front-line education services as much as possible.
The pupil-teacher ratio in non-fee-charging schools at primary and post-primary levels was protected for the third year in a row, while the 2014-15 school year is expected to see approximately 1,400 additional teachers recruited to schools, providing positions for newly qualified and unemployed teachers. Two thirds of the additional teachers will be mainstream teachers, while one third will be resource teachers supporting children with special educational needs. In addition, the ceiling in the number of special needs assistant posts was increased by 390 posts to 10,965 posts, compared to the earlier ceiling of 10,575 posts.
The outputs to be achieved with the 2014 expenditure allocation were set out in the revised estimates volume for my Department. In addition to funding the salaries of over 96,000 public servants and pensions for 42,500 pensioners - I must admit I was surprised that the figure was so high - the allocation provided for further funding to progress a number of important educational initiatives. These include the literacy and numeracy strategy, the reform of the junior certificate and the continued roll-out of high-speed broadband to second level schools. In addition, proceeds from the national lottery licence transaction were used to provide seed funding to allow primary schools without book rental schemes to set up such schemes. The 2014 provision also continues to provide funding for training and reskilling, for persons in employment and for those seeking work. In order to help tackle youth unemployment, a minimum of 2,000 places were ring-fenced in a new round of the Momentum programme - which we launched this morning - for the under 25s who are out of work, while 5,000 places were scheduled for roll-out under the Springboard programme.
On the capital side, the allocation for 2014 provides mainly for ongoing delivery of the five year 2012-16 school building programme, involving 275 major school building projects and an additional 80,000 school places to meet demographic increases. The capital provision includes €65 million under the Government’s stimulus initiatives, which include funding for the development of the new DIT campus at Grangegorman, which I visited recently and found hugely impressive, and for 28 additional school building projects.
The latest expenditure data available for my Department relates to the period up to the end of August. At that time, net overall voted expenditure by the Department’s Vote was €5.115 billion. This was made up of €4.828 billion in current expenditure and €287 million in capital. These figures are more or less on target, with current spend just €7 million behind profile while capital is €6 million ahead.
To date in 2014, a total of 31 large scale school capital projects, comprising 23 new school buildings and 8 large scale extensions, have been completed. It is expected that over 40 school projects will be completed by the end of the year, including seven schools that have come on stream under the public private partnership programme. In addition, the 2014 summer works scheme saw over 770 projects approved for works this year, with a total projected expenditure of over €70 million.
While the end-August expenditure figures for my Department are on target, the picture painted by the end-September figures will have an important bearing on the overall picture for 2014. This is due to the commencement of the new academic year, when the impact of additional students in schools and colleges will become known. A clearer picture of the number of teacher retirements will also emerge at that stage. I expect the end-year expenditure position to be quite tight, and the situation in this regard will be closely monitored by my officials over the weeks ahead. The position emerging in the September returns will also of course have an impact on expenditure for 2015.
The 2015 budget will be announced in three weeks’ time on 14 October. The earlier budget date presents particular challenges for the education sector, given that the academic year only starts in September, when a clearer picture of the student population for the year ahead emerges. My Department will be required to make an earlier call than usual on the projected expenditure position for 2014 and its likely impact on requirements for 2015. This requires close attention in the lead-up to the budget and, as I already indicated, places particular importance on my Department’s end of September expenditure figures. This is especially the case with regard to increases in student demographics, which impact on teacher numbers, capitation payments and other areas of spend on the Vote.
The determination of the overall budgetary strategy for 2015 will be finalised in Government discussions over the weeks ahead. In the circumstances, the Chairman will appreciate that I am very limited in what I can say in regard to these discussions at this time.
I am happy, together with Minister of State, Deputy English, to respond to any matters that committee members wish to raise.