Early years education 'a priority'
Protecting early years education is a priority if further funding can be found, Northern Ireland's Education Minister has claimed.
John O'Dowd said he hoped playgroups and day care facilities can be saved if he is handed more money during next month's reallocation of Stormont funds.
He said: "I have my budget under review.
"I have been making bids to the June monitoring round and if I do secure funding either from within my own budget or the June monitoring round, the item at the very top of the list is early years."
Thousands of people have signed an online petition opposing plans to slash £2 million from the Department of Education's early years budget.
It is claimed, the proposals could lead to the closure of up to 153 playgroups, day care facilities and services for youngsters with disabilities may have to close with the potential loss of 177 jobs.
It could also mean the loss of 2,500 pre-school places -- including 600 for children with special needs and 250 for those who do not have English as their first language.
The issue was raised during Question Time at the Assembly.
Mr O'Dowd told MLAs he was having to make tough decisions.
He added: "There is no fat left in the system where we can go to and trim it off and say that will have no impact on communities, that it will have no impact on education.
"I am now down to the bone. I am now among sacred cows. I am making decisions around funding which I never thought I would have to make."
DUP MLA Adrian McQuillan said the proposed cuts had sent "shock waves" across the community.
"Early years funding is very important in a child's education. This is one of the last places we should be looking to cut, no matter what our budget is saying," he said.