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Minister's U-turn saves 'hundreds of playgroups' for now

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 11/07/2015

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years
Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years

Early years education campaigners have welcomed a U-turn on plans to slash their budget.

They claim hundreds of playgroups and day care facilities have been saved after John O'Dowd set aside £1.1 million for the Early Years Fund.

Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, the organisation for young children, said: "On behalf of the organisation, and 153 local communities, we welcome Minister O'Dowd's reinstatement of the Early Years Fund.

"Early Years acknowledges that this has been a difficult period in terms of public sector finance and is delighted with the commitment to the Early Years Fund and prioritisation of this issue."

The Education Minister had been under growing pressure to rethink the controversial proposals, which campaigners claimed could have cost 177 jobs.

Since May, thousands of people signed an online petition and public meetings were held across the region to discuss the contentious issue.

The minister said: "My department, and the Executive more widely, face enormous challenges as a result of the reductions imposed on us by the Westminster Government.

"This has made the task of defending Early Years provision enormously difficult. However, I have been able to secure savings in administration of the fund through ongoing discussions with the fund administrators.

"Funding to the groups will continue at the current level."

The Early Years Fund was originally set up in 2004 to help sustain some early childhood services in areas of higher deprivation.

Ulster Unionist education spokeswoman Sandra Overend welcomed the "partial reprieve".

She said: "The Education Minister's original proposals would have had a devastating effect on young people in many of the most disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland.

"These services ensure that early years provision in those areas is high quality

"However, this still leaves a significant shortfall from what was originally hoped for.

"In addition the minister has been open that this support will be only enough to secure existing services until March 2016, so it is clear there will be major challenges in the not so distant future."

Sinn Fein and the DUP also both welcomed the decision.

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