Public expenditure on pre-primary and primary education in Northern Ireland is least per child (£3,440; UK average: £4,316) and per head of population (£416; UK average: £473). Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has the second highest level of expenditure on overall education per head of population (£1,453); the situation is better explained by the amount spent per head on education subsidies and n.e.c. categories (£257; UK average: £102).

On Tuesday 13th March during an interview conducted on BBC Radio Ulster Evening Extra, Corinne Latham, principal of Seaview Primary School in North Belfast, claimed: “For every child coming into school in Northern Ireland, they are getting much less than their counterparts in other regions of the United Kingdom.”

Our correspondence with Latham led us to NAHT Northern Ireland, who directed us to a report, “A ‘free’ education? The cost of education in Northern Ireland”, published by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People(NICCY) in October 2017.

“A ‘free’ education?” report analysed a report, “Public expenditure: Statistical analyses 2017”, which HM Treasury published on public expenditure for 2015-16 and uses World Bank categories that include education and subcategories. NICCY used population statistics from the Office of National Statistics’ “Population estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (mid-year estimates, 2016), and we use the same for our figures below.

The following table shows the overall public expenditure, by region, on education:

Table 1. Education expenditure by region and head

RegionPopulation (mid-2016 estimate)Education (2015-16 expenditure)Per head population
NORTHERN IRELAND1,862,137£2,706,000,000£1,453

Table 1 shows that Northern Ireland receives the second highest amount of public expenditure for education, per head of its population.

How much do Northern Ireland primary pupils receive per child in Northern Ireland?

As Latham used the phrase, “coming into school”, we analysed comparative spend for pre-primary (nursery/under-fives) and primary pupils. The following table shows this public expenditure by region, by head of regional population, and per child.

Table 2. Pre-primary and primary education expenditure by region, head, and child

RegionPopulation (mid-2016 estimate)Pre-primary & Primary (2015-16 expenditure)Pre-primary & Primary per head populationPopulation aged 3-11 (mid-2016 estimate)% aged 3-11/Total PopulationPre-primary & Primary per child (age 3-11)
NORTHERN IRELAND1,862,137£774,000,000£416224,98412.1%£3,440

Table 2 shows that for pre-primary and primary education, Northern Ireland spends the least per head of its population (£416; UK average: £473) and the least per child (£3,440; UK average: £4,316).

At face value, Latham’s claim is correct; primary aged children in Northern Ireland receive less direct education expenditure than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

But these figures are an incomplete reflection of public expenditure at the pre-primary and primary school level (and others).

Other education expenditure includes “subsidy services to education” and “n.e.c.” (“not elsewhere classified”). As explained in the NICCY report, subsidy services include: home to school transport, school meals and milk; schools development services; pupil support; and other Education Authority centre services. Education “n.e.c.” expenditure includes: special schools; Non-Departmental Public Bodies (e.g. Education Authority, CCEA, CCMS, GTCNI, CnaG, NICIE, Middletown); capital works; departmental costs; and grants for education services.

Table 3. Subsidies and n.e.c. by region and per head of population

RegionPopulation (mid-2016 estimate)Subsidiesn.e.c.Subsidies + n.e.c. per head of population
NORTHERN IRELAND1,862,137£200,000,000£278,000,000£257

Table 3 shoes that Northern Ireland spends the most on subsidies plus n.e.c., per head of its population (£257; UK average £102).

Thus, while public expenditure on pre-primary and primary education Northern Ireland is lower per head of population as in the rest of the UK (£416 vs £473), it spends considerably more on education subsidies and n.e.c. categories (£257 vs £102).

This relatively greater proportion of education expenditure in Northern Ireland on subsidies and n.e.c. reduces the average amount of direct expenditure per child in pre-primary and primary education.


A previous version of this article omitted a reference to NAHT Northern Ireland, who assisted us with our research, and incorrectly identified the full name of NICCY. We are grateful to both organisations.

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