Row as Stormont shells out £60,000 on Minecraft computer game... and cuts back on book schemes while closing libraries
A row has erupted after it emerged Stormont is to pay £60,000 for schoolchildren to play a computer game — at a time when savage cuts have led to the closure of a major book scheme.
Northern Ireland is the first place in the world where all post-primary children will be given free access to Minecraft, one of the most popular games ever.
But it is now the only region of the UK to not have the Booktrust programme, which distributed 50,000 packs of free books for babies and children here last year.
Experts have said a special version of Minecraft designed for the classroom will help teach the Stem subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as well art, history and computer coding. It is expected to reach up to 50,000 children annually.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has allocated capital funding of £60,000 to cover the cost of the Minecraft licences and a mobile gaming studio which can travel to community events.
The Swedish computer game has been downloaded 100 million times since its 2009 launch and enjoys a cult following among children, who design their own worlds, virtually building houses and weapons with Lego-like bricks.
But introducing video games to the classroom at a time when schools, book schemes and libraries are closing has led one leading local politician to question if the project devised by CultureTECH should be the real priority.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said: “If the choice is between sticking children in front of a computer screen or giving them a book, I know what I would choose.”
Mr Wilson said he believed funding should be given to principals, and they should decide how it should be spent. “Some schemes are valuable, others not relevant,” he added. And he expressed disappointment at the end of the Bookstart project, which had received £250,000 in funding each year to get books into the hands of families.
Booktrust manager Liz Canning said she was surprised and disappointed by the decision.
She said the charity had not been able to find replacement funding, and may have to split into smaller projects to survive.
“It is great that schools are being given the opportunity to have Minecraft as children enjoy learning through technology,” she said.
“However, all children need to enjoy books and learn to read first.
“Programmes like Bookstart are the building blocks and we have the evidence to show that children who have access to books from an early age will go on to achieve more academically.”
The MinecraftEdu initiative was launched yesterday at St Cecilia’s College in Londonderry. Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said: “Game players regularly exhibit persistence, risk taking, attention to detail and problem solving skills, all of which they would ideally also demonstrate in school. By making Minecraft available we hope to encourage this kind of behaviour.”