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Parents demand answers over nursery shambles

Ruane under fire as 1,500 tots miss out on pre-school

By Lindsay Fergus

Parents whose children have been refused places at local nurseries have challenged Education Minister Caitriona Ruane over her department’s controversial criteria for allocating pre-school spaces.

They have warned that if she continues to turn a blind eye to the alarming situation they will be left with no option but to launch judicial review proceedings.

The threat of legal action was sent to Ms Ruane — who is hoping to return as Education Minister — on Wednesday as new figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph show that the frustrated parents of 1,493 children here have so far failed to secure a funded pre-school place for September.

There are hundreds more younger age applicants for both the incoming year and last year who are also awaiting news. Those damning figures are in direct contravention of the Education Minister’s strategy for Early Years.

A group of north Belfast parents, whose children are struggling to find nursery places, have this week written to Ms Ruane after receiving no satisfactory response from either Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) or the Department of Education.

Law lecturer and mother-of-six Mary O’Rawe, who has penned the two-page letter to the minister on behalf of concerned parents in her area, has highlighted flaws in the current system for allocating pre-school places.

It states: “Children of parents not in receipt of benefits have been denied placement at local nurseries in terms of both statutory and voluntary service provision.

“To date, no satisfactory response has been given to both how the following situation has arisen and why it is being allowed to continue, when alternatives seem viable.”

The letter continues: “As well as causing a lot of stress and uncertainty, this lack of provision flies in the faces of the Government’s stated Early Years vision.

“A number of families in this area, my own included, have been rejected by all four providers, despite the fact that several of us had other children attend those providers.

“The net result is that many local families are actually being penalised for working, and |families like my own are facing huge practical difficulties in trying to decide whether we could/should try to place our children outside our local area.

“We fully support open access to education; we are concerned as to the consequences whereby the receipt of benefits alone ends up as the only real priority in the allocation of places.

“It is also of concern that, while we are being asked to drive our children out of the area in order to avail of a nursery place, a number of children in the past have been taxied in.”

It concludes: “The situation that has been allowed to arise is manifestly unreasonable and cries out to be judicially reviewed.

“I really hope it won’t come to that, and that you are able to do something as minister to allow more children and families in this area to have the nursery provision of their choice.”

Since the introduction of the Department of Education’s Pre-School Expansion Programme in 1998, availability of funded pre-school provision has increased from 45% to over 90% for children in their final pre-school year.

The department declined to comment because of the impending election.

It revised its procedure this year so the first-stage process was restricted to children in their final pre-school year. Last year underage children were considered at the same time. A second-stage process has been introduced this year.

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