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Caitriona Ruane blames education boards for cutting summer schemes

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane has blamed education boards for cutting summer schemes for children with special needs.

The Sinn Fein minister also accused the DUP of opposing reforms that would see the boards replaced by a single Education and Skills Authority (ESA).

But MLAs tabled an urgent question at the Assembly today to challenge the minister on the removal of funding for a number of summer schemes for children with learning disabilities and asked what her department is doing to help.

Ms Ruane said: "There is no point in MLAs coming into the chamber criticising the decisions of boards, or attempting to deflect the criticisms of a decision by a board on to me as a minister, especially when they are members of the political parties who are keeping the boards in place."

The minister was challenged by Ulster Unionist George Savage and DUP chairman of the Assembly education committee Mervyn Storey.

She said: "The boards are not an efficient mechanism for the management or administration of our education service.

"The DUP and UUP continue to block the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority, which has been designed to ensure that the maximum amount of money is directed to frontline services, rather than duplicating bureaucracy."

Ms Ruane said the ESA could save £20 million each year, which could be diverted toward areas of urgent need.

"If people are genuinely concerned about our special educational needs children, as I am, they will join with me and parties across the board in supporting the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority."

The minister said she would expect all boards to make children with special needs their highest priority, and she added that children and their families deserve to have the summer schemes funded.

Ms Ruane said three boards had made a decision to cut the schemes and that given the levels of funding available to the boards, none should have had to do so.

Mr Savage said the cuts were deplorable and argued that the cutting of summer schemes is an important matter.

"This is not one which I am playing politics with," he said, "this is a real serious issue."

He asked the minister to meet him and other interested parties to help the affected families, but Ms Ruane said a cross-party delegation should first go to the boards to challenge their decisions.

She said she accepted that Mr Savage was not playing politics, but she repeated her belief that the introduction of the ESA could make important savings.

Mr Storey accused the minister of making political points in her remarks. The DUP representative claimed the minister had questions to answer over the summer scheme decisions.

But Ms Ruane repeated that the decisions were made by the boards and she underlined her call for all politicians to back the potential savings of the ESA.

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