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Northern Ireland's nursery school policy has 'created misery and chaos for thousands of families'

By Noel McAdam

Policy on preschool provision has created misery and chaos for thousands of families across Northern Ireland, angry Assembly Members have warned.

Parents are being offered places for their children at nursery schools that are nowhere near their homes, with the results that:

  • Some are considering moving house.
  • Others would be better off going on social security benefits.
  • Some are even said to be trying to ensure their babies are born in July and August.
  • Children could be sent to live with grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives.

MLAs warned that working families are being disadvantaged — because admissions criteria favour children from socially-disadvantaged backgrounds — and backed an Alliance motion for immediate action to end the confusion and heartache.

Some parents seeking a pre-school place for their offspring who live in Ballymena were offered a place in Carrickfergus.

One family in Lisburn got an offer of a place in either Bangor or Newcastle, while there were empty spaces at a nursery in Newry — for families who were living in Hillsborough.

In Carnmoney there are three nurseries and 182 places, yet no place for a child who has two working parents.

Opening the debate, Alliance’s Judith Cochrane said that some nurseries in east Belfast have had to offer places to children who live in Conlig, near Bangor, Dunmurry, near Lisburn, and Greenisland, near Carrickfergus, because they were born in July or August.

“That may suit their parent because of where they work or where a grandparent lives, but it is not fair and should not be allowed to continue,” she said.

Now the Assembly’s education committee may decide to launch an inquiry into the debacle when it meets tomorrow.

The DUP’s Brenda Hale said: “It is just unacceptable that a family who have lived in Lisburn or Dromore all their lives are being asked to travel approximately 60 miles a day to access preschool education,” she said.

“Families are being forced to consider relocating outside their local community or to stop their employment.

“Some are even having to consider relocating their children with other family members rather than be forced to spend up to three hours a day travelling.”

But Sinn Fein’s Michaela Boyle said: “One would almost be forgiv

en for thinking that there was a war brewing — parents who work versus parents who do not work.

“I do not wish to be responsible or to be a cheerleader for demonising the unemployed.”

The DUP’s Jonathan Craig said that he could understand it happening once, and even forgive twice, but found it hard to believe “the department and the boards can get it wrong for three years in a row. Clearly, there is some fundamental flaw”.

Education Minister John O’Dowd acknowledged that 1,429 children are still currently unplaced for the incoming year and that while there are a total of 1,742 places remaining, “not all of these may be in the right places to meet the demand”.

He announced an injection of £6m of additional funding towards preschool and early years education — £1.4m of it to be made available in the short-term — but also made clear that he is not the “minister for childcare”.

“At times there appears to be a perception in some quarters that we are providing childcare. I am the Minister of Education, not the minister of childcare,” the Sinn Fein man said.

“Although I fully accept that preschool, like school, assists in the planning of a child’s care arrangements, that is not its primary purpose.

“We do not send children to primary school to assist parents in their childcare.”

He also said that last week he had tasked officials to meet the area boards and report back on actions “to more closely align supply and demand by September” — a meeting which will take place this Thursday.

The UUP’s Danny Kinahan said that some of the minister’s comments were uncalled for.

Mr Kinahan said he had been told that there were parents planning their children’s births so that they happen during July, August and September.

“So, it is no longer (‘I’ve) a headache’, it is: ‘Think of nursery places’,” he said.

The SDLP’s Conall McDevitt said: “While we discriminate against children born in July and August today, we will continue to discriminate against children of working parents in the future.

“That will remain the case as long as we have a policy that does not put a duty on the State to provide every child with a preschool and nursery place.”

Following the debate, Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of the organisation Early Years, said: “We are glad that this Assembly debate has highlighted the apprehension and concern many parents feel about the issue, and we are pleased that the minister has made this commitment.”

Background

The department’s admission criteria for preschool places specify two priorities: children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and four-year-olds with July/August birthdays since they will not enter compulsory education until after their fifth birthday. That was part of a targeting initiative to reduce the levels of underachievement in the long term.

But it has a knock-on effect because the first criterion for places in most primary schools is that a child seeking entrance will have attended the local feeder preschool.

Questions and Answers

Q When did the Education Minister announce changes to how the admissions arrangements for preschool places will operate in future?

AThe changes were announced on January 17, 2012.

Q Will children with summer birthdays continue to get preference for places?

A No. The minister has decided to revoke the rule that gives children born in July and August priority in the admissions process as a report confirmed previous findings that the July/August birthdays admissions criterion can potentially disadvantage younger children in their pre-school year. He intends to revoke this in the 1999 regulations, and also to remove it as a priority criterion for non-statutory providers.

Q Is there a timescale in place for this?

A Yes. He intends to bring legislation before the Assembly before the summer recess with a view to being implemented in time for September 2013.

Q Will children whose parents are on benefits continue to get placed first?

A Yes. However, there will be a review of how social disadvantage is defined.

Q Is there a timescale in place for this?

A No. The minister has said this must wait until the Executive has deliberated on universal credit under the welfare reforms.

Q Has any additional funding been provided to the preschool sector?

A Yes. An extra £1.25m has been allocated to private and voluntary preschool providers for this year to create more places.

Q How many children are currently receiving a free preschool place?

A In the current year, there are over 23,000 children in funded preschool education at a cost of approximately £50m.

Q Are there any plans for reception classes?

A Yes. The minister is to end the practice of schools offering reception provision as it “is educationally undesirable”.

Q How much does a pre-school place cost the Department of Education?

A The current cost of a place in a non-statutory setting is £1,565 compared with £1,827 for a part-time nursery unit or £1,949 for a nursery school. Full-time places are more costly.

Q Has every child who applied for a preschool place for September 2013 been placed yet?

A No. At the end of stage one 21,370 children had been placed (94% with first preference). To date 1,429 remain unplaced, however there are still 1,742 places in the system. The remaining children should be placed at the end of stage two in June, though not in their top places of preference, in fact it could be their sixth choice and outside their catchment area.

LINDSAY FERGUS

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