Warning over early years budget cut
Slashing £2 million from the Department of Education's early years budget is short-sighted and foolish, campaigners have warned.
Thousands of people have signed an online petition urging Education Minister John O'Dowd to think again, amid claims the cuts could have a disastrous impact on the most vulnerable children.
Siobhan Fitzpatrick, chief executive of Early Years, the organisation for young children, said: "This will have a devastating effect on some of the most disadvantaged communities across Northern Ireland."
If the proposals go ahead, 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 is claimed.
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.
An estimated 1,800 single parents who depend on the services in their local communities could lose their support.
The changes are due to take effect from August 31.
Ms Fitzpatrick said: "For every £1 that is invested in early years education you save the state £17 in remedial action at a later date.
"So, this is very foolish, short-sighted, and not a very cost-effective way of reducing funds."
The online petition, which hopes to attract 10,000 signatures, was set up as a direct response to parents' concerns.
The Early Years organisation is also seeking an urgent meeting with the minister to discuss the financial crisis.
"There was no consultation about this in the draft budget," added Ms Fitzpatrick. "It was just announced.
"We have met with departmental officials but it was the minister who took the decision and we would like to meet with him to ask for the decision to be rescinded."
The Department of Education said it had to dramatically reduce expenditure.
A statement said: "The requirement to reduce the Department of Education's expenditure by £97.6 million in one financial year has regrettably resulted in reduced funding to some worthy programmes, including within the early years sector. The Education Minister has aimed to minimise any impact on the delivery of services.
"The Early Years Fund is administered on behalf of the DE by Early Years - the Organisation for Young Children. It was originally established by DHSSPS in 2004 to help sustain certain early childhood services in areas of greatest need which were facing funding difficulties when Peace II funding ended. It has effectively remained as a 'closed' fund since then to applicants that were in areas of greatest need at that time.
"Funding has been reduced in 2015/16, however the minister has ensured that the residual 2015/16 Early Years Fund will enable all recipient groups to receive continued funding to the end of the current academic year.
"The minister will continue to review the education budget to establish if a fund can continue beyond August 31 2015.
"However any such fund would have to be open to all, not just current recipients, and reflect the policy priorities of DE."
Public meetings have taken place in some parts of Northern Ireland on the issue and m ore are expected in Londonderry, South Down, Mid Ulster and Upper Bann over the coming weeks.
Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend, who sits on the Stormont education scrutiny committee, said she had been inundated with complaints from constituents about the issue.
She said: "I have received calls and letters asking for my support and explaining how the Education Minister's proposals to cut £2 million from the Early Years budget would have a devastating effect on young people in many of the most disadvantaged areas of Northern Ireland.
"These services ensure that early years provision in those areas is high quality, by providing direct support and infrastructural assistance to service providers, playing a crucial role in the delivery of pre-school education.
"The removal of financial support to this important area will have a profoundly detrimental effect on so many families in Northern Ireland."