Little Ella's dad died when she was still in womb... now, in a move branded 'cold and calculated', she has been refused a nursery place because her mum's a widow
Little Ella Burke will never know her father, Portadown Pikers fishing tragedy victim Daryl Burke, who died after his boat capsized on Lough Ree in March 2014.
Clutching his photo to her chest, the three-year-old proudly announces that she will soon be joining her three big brothers William (10), Callum (7) and Brooklyn (5) at Edenderry Primary School at the end of her road.
However, her 30-year-old mum Louise knows that her little girl could be disappointed, as she believes her child has effectively been refused a funded nursery school place by the Education Authority (EA) because her father is no longer alive.
Since her husband's death three years ago, the full-time mum-of-four has devoted her life to her children, and is in receipt of Widowed Parents' Allowance (WPA).
At the end of April she was shocked to receive a letter from the EA denying Ella a funded place at her top two nursery school choices, Edenderry Nursery and Seagoe Nursery.
Subsequent correspondence with the EA revealed that WPA, unlike Income Support, Jobseeker's Allowance or, in some cases, Employment and Support Allowance, does not qualify a child to be considered for a funded nursery place.
This means that the young widow would have to pay a minimum of around £2,300 per year for a non-funded place, as well as splitting up her family and sending her daughter to a nursery further away.
Louise, who gave birth to Ella clutching a photo of her late husband, said she "burst into tears" when she heard that her only daughter had been refused a free place at a school less than 500 yards from her home.
"I felt like I had failed her, she is effectively being penalised for not having a daddy," the distraught mum told the Belfast Telegraph.
"My first choice had been Edenderry Nursery as it is so close, and I wanted Ella to go to the same school as her older brothers, but I was willing to consider three other schools too, even ones which are further away.
But they won't give me a funded place, even though I'm raising four kids on my own without their dad.
"I was on Income Support until I got Daryl's death certificate, and then was transferred to Widowed Parents' Allowance in 2015.
"Financially there was little difference, but I noticed on the nursery application form that there was no option to declare Widowed Parents' Allowance-only Income Support, Jobseeker's Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance. There was nowhere to state that I was a widow.
"I noted down my National Insurance number and assumed that they would check that, see I was in receipt of the benefit, and it would be taken into consideration."
However, the EA's refusal means Louise could be forced to keep Ella at home due to the prohibitive cost of a non-funded place.
"There are only two nurseries offering non-funded places remaining in the Portadown area," she continued.
"I have been left with no other choice than to apply, but even if I get a place, Ella won't be able to attend unless it's funded as it would cost a minimum of around £2,300.
"If your father dying doesn't qualify for special consideration, then what does? We are appealing and hope that the EA will overturn its decision and grant Ella a funded nursery place."
Louise's case has been taken up by former UUP MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, who wrote to EA chief executive Gavin Boyd expressing her concern.
In an email response to Mrs Dobson, the EA stated: "The benefits that are considered in terms of admission to a funded pre-school place are set in the Pre-School Education in Schools (Admissions Criteria) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1999.
"They are currently confined to Income Support or Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance (and to those circumstances where an award of Income Support has been 'converted' into an Employment and Support Allowance and the Social Security Agency has confirmed that the level of benefit remains the same).
"It is not within the Education Authority's remit to alter the eligible benefits but these are likely to change with the introduction of Universal Credit and I will ask officers to be mindful of your comments as the department will be required to consult such changes."
Louise and Ms Dobson both say they are "shocked" at the "cold-hearted" manner in which the matter has been dealt with by the EA.
"Ella has been robbed of her daddy and now she is being punished again," Ms Dobson said.
"The state is taking away the first rung on the educational ladder because her daddy has died.
"Any criteria that excludes widowhood is very cold and calculated. It has been difficult for Louise to open up and talk about her situation, but she is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare and she needs help.
"If this can't be resolved Ella will miss out.
"If her parents had been alive, separated and in receipt of benefits, she would have qualified, but she is being penalised because her father is dead.
"I'm shocked that Louise has been through so much and now is forced to endure this.
"I would like someone from the Education Authority to come to the house, to meet Ella and see how close the school is before they make their decision.
"We want a simple change: a box which can be ticked to say the parent is in receipt of Widowed Parents' Allowance."
Louise, who still gets flashbacks to her husband's death, said she found the EA's actions "retraumatising".
"If Daryl was alive he would be furious," she added.
"When I told him I was having a girl, he was so protective, he wanted the best for her.
"If the situation was reversed and he was the one left behind, he would be fighting tooth and nail to protect his daughter.
"I'm fighting not just for myself but for other young widows. If Ella's situation helps change the law and helps another child get a place, it will be worth it."
The EA said: "The use of criteria relating to social disadvantage in terms of admission to a funded pre-school place is a matter for the Department of Education.
"The Education Authority cannot comment on the circumstances of individual children. We can confirm that the second stage of the admissions process for pre-school places is ongoing. Letters will be issued on June 9, 2017 to inform parents of the outcome."
No one from the Department of Education was available for comment.