Two Mid Ulster MLAs have attacked the Education Minister’s plans to slash Early Years funding, which they say will affect the education of the area’s most disadvantaged.
The Department for Education [DE] has cut the fund from £2.941m last year to £941,000 this year.
But SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone and UUP MLA Sandra Overend said they have both raised the issue at the assembly in the hope that their efforts will encourage the Minister to rethink the “devastating cuts”.
Mr McGlone, brought it up during questions to the First Minister this week.
Accusing John O’Dowd of “attempting to blackmail the executive for more money by threatening to cut funding to the childcare strategy” he said: “The provision of preschool childcare is too important to be abused in this manner.
“The Education Minister should be expanding the provision of childcare, not planning to cut it.”
The Minister’s failure over Early Years funding... will cause damage to the education of many disadvantaged children right across Northern Ireland - Overend
In response to Mr McGlone’s comments, John O’Dowd said: “I have invested over £216m in Early Years services in 2015/16.
“This is not an insignificant amount of money. The pre-school programme provides funded pre-school education for the benefit of the children. It is not free day care.”
Sandra Overend, who is running in the upcoming Westminster election, said: “The Minister’s failure over Early Years funding will cause damage to the education of many disadvantaged children right across Northern Ireland.
She dubbed his excuses for making the “devastating cuts to this vital service” “pitiful”, adding: “It is clearly apparent that the Minister lacks budgetary credibility.
“If the Minister feels that he needs further clarification from the Ulster Unionist Party on the best way to use his budget, I will be happy to direct him further.”
In response, Mr O’Dowd said: “As Minister my decisions are quite rightly open to scrutiny. However to continue to resource the Early Years Fund means that corresponding reductions would need to be made elsewhere in the Education budget.
“I note that Sandra Overend is calling my budgetary credibility into question but yet she makes no suggestion as to where alternative reductions might be made without impacting on priority Education frontline services.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education added: “Minister O’Dowd has taken every action possible to protect Education funding and those frontline services within the DE remit. However, it is simply impossible to protect everything.
“He has ensured that funding is available in 2015/16 to enable all 153 recipients of the Fund to receive continued support to the end of the current academic year.”
The fund, which was set up in 2004 to sustain early years care in the areas that most needed it, only accepts applications from groups that were on board from the start.
Minister O’Dowd has said that after a review of his budget, if additional money is found, he will open this up to all Early Years services.