Belfast Telegraph

Shambles of preschool places could take two years to sort out

By John Mulgrew

Changes in selection criteria for preschool places may not be introduced until 2014, a parental pressure group claims.

Local Kids 1st met with parents and community representatives over its concerns at St Mary’s College in Belfast on Wednesday.

Last year the group expressed its outrage after 1,500 youngsters missed out on preschool places.

While Education Minister John O’Dowd has promised action, it won’t come quick enough to help parents and children this term or next, Local Kids 1st believes.

The discrepancy between where places are available and where demand exists means that some families are being offered nursery provision many miles from their homes, making almost impossible demands on them in terms of time and travel.

Chairman Colm Burns said children were “being shipped six or seven miles” to nurseries.

“Children aren’t getting places. People on DLA, those made redundant, low income and students — everyone is losing out,” he said.

Currently, Government criteria for every preschool includes a preference for those on income-related benefits and children whose birthdays fall in July or August.

Earlier this year Mr O’Dowd said he would be removing the birthday prioritisation and the preference given to families receiving benefits would be reassessed.

Mr O’Dowd added he would also review and broaden the definition of social disadvantage.

“The key change is that I'm going to remove the July-August birthday criteria, which is disadvantaging young children,” he told the Assembly in January.

“It has been a demand for some time and recognised in a number of reports.

“I will use the first legislative opportunity to remove that.” But parents do not believe any proposed changes will come soon enough for children, and may not come into force until 2014.

Father-of-two Mr Burns said Mr O’Dowd, who was unable to attend last night’s meeting, must listen closely to the concerns of parents.

He added: “The numbers are just as high and it’s going to be the same next year.

“I want the minister to sit down and hear our concerns and to look at the criteria.

“People are getting places on discrimination. The criteria system is not working.

“We are worried and frightened that parents are now moving strategically close to nurseries and trying to fit themselves as close to the criteria as they can.”

East Belfast Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane, who attended last night’s meeting, said people were becoming increasingly frustrated by the selection process.

“There is a lot to be done and a lot of willingness from people, who are getting together and communicating,” she said.

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