Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Unfair nursery lottery must end

At a cursory glance it would seem that pre-school nursery provision in Northern Ireland is generous.

There are currently 1,429 children looking to be placed in the incoming year and there are 1,742 places available. However, behind that bald statistic lies many tales of heartache for parents throughout the province.

In many instances the vacancies are not in places where the demand for places is. There is no doubt that the system needs a major overhaul.

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.

It also leads to the situation where children are using relatives' addresses simply to get a place, which may deprive others whose home is actually in the immediate vicinity of the nursery.

As can be seen from the case histories in this newspaper today there are many other anomalies in the system. Children born in July and August are given preferential treatment. Admissions criteria also appear to favour socially disadvantaged families. It is entirely proper that those living on low incomes or benefits should have access to nursery provision, but not at the expense of those families who are working.

The ideal surely should be to give equality of opportunity and access to all families, and not to put any at a disadvantage. That is not to demonise those living on benefits, as some seek to portray the protests, but simply to ensure that the playing field is level.

Education Minister John O'Dowd acknowledges that there are problems - he could hardly do otherwise since these are long-running sores - and he should move to create a system which is more nuanced to provide fairer access and provision right across the province. Of course it is well nigh impossible to exactly match provision with demand, but at the moment the two are well out of kilter and need to be re-examined urgently.

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