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Principals hit out as funding for sports coaches scheme ends

By Gillian Halliday

Primary school head teachers have hit out at the Department of Education for withdrawing funding for a "vital" sports coaching programme delivered by the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Ulster GAA.

Yesterday, the department confirmed that due to budget constraints, funding for the schools curriculum sports programme - which has been running since 2007 - is to stop by October 31.

The scheme provided primary schools across Northern Ireland with either an IFA or Ulster GAA coach for weekly one-hour visits.

In 2016-17, more than 36,000 boys and girls benefited from the scheme across 400 schools, at a cost of around £1.3m each year.

The programme employs more than 50 coaches, with 23 alone supplied by the IFA. A spokesperson confirmed the positions were now "at risk" following the announcement.

In a separate statement, the IFA said it was "hugely disappointed" by the outcome, but it would lobby with the GAA to have it reinstated by 2019/20.

"The Irish FA and Ulster GAA coaches involved in this programme have provided a vital service both for schools and for broader society," it read.

The GAA has not yet commented on whether or not its coaches will be impacted by the cut.

The education department had previously granted the scheme a reprieve in 2017 and again earlier this year.

However, it stressed current budget pressures meant that it could not retain the scheme "without impacting" other areas and increasing the "risk of an overspend".

Kevin Donaghy, principal of St Ronan's in Newry, yesterday described the move as the "tipping point" in the ongoing budget crisis in local education.

"Children's education is now being impacted on. Primary schools have borne some of the biggest cuts," he said.

He explained its loss would directly affect between 160 to 170 P1 to P3 pupils out of a total enrolment of nearly 410.

"December 14 will be our last coaching session," he revealed.

Mr Donaghy urged the department to request that funding generated via the UK sugar drinks tax levy, introduced in April this year to tackle obesity and diabetes, be made available to retain the programme.

While Northern Ireland is set to receive £12.3m in 2018/19 and £15m in 2019/20 as its share of the levy - according to the finance department - it cannot be spent on health services without Stormont ministers in place.

Mr Donaghy stressed that education should get a portion of the money given the health benefits of the sports programme.

"The Department of Education should hold off and ask for the sugar tax money," he insisted.

Paul Bell, principal of Botanic primary in Belfast, also stressed the withdrawal of the programme comes as schools are under increasing financial pressure.

"We would take the scheme as often as it was offered. We didn't have it every year, but it's highly likely that we would've been offered it next year," he explained.

He added that visits from the IFA coaches had a positive impact on pupils.

"They were good role models and really encouraged pupils," Mr Bell said.

He added that Botanic primary has now been forced to pay for external private firms to provide football coaching.

"It's becoming quite clear that schools are being massively underfunded," said Mr Bell.

Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, a former GAA player, said the development was "sickening", directing the blame at the failure of Sinn Fein and the DUP to resolve the Stormont impasse.

Belfast Telegraph

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