Playgroup places at risk in funding cuts

Peatlands Playgroup.  New intake with Leader Estelle Brownlee and Lauraine McMurray, Sarah Ogilby and Catherine Tate.  INPT3914-426
Peatlands Playgroup. New intake with Leader Estelle Brownlee and Lauraine McMurray, Sarah Ogilby and Catherine Tate. INPT3914-426

Places at playgroups and staff jobs could be lost under budget cuts proposed for the coming year.

Playgroups in the area have been sent letters informing them of plans to slash funding for the Pre-School Education Programme by 15 per cent.

Joe Garvey, secretary of Richmount Pre-school Playgroup, said parents and children will be the biggest losers if the proposal goes ahead.

The Richmount playgroup has 10 funded places this year, and, like the other groups, may not know until April how many funded places it will be allocated for children starting in September.

There are around six playgroups in the Portadown area - Happy Tots in Edward Street; Little Oaks, Killicomaine, and Peatlands Playgroup, Birches, both of which have 26 funded places this year; and Naiscoil na Banna, with 15 funded pupils.

Estelle Brownlee, leader at Peatlands, said the playgroup is extremely popular, with one pupil turned away this year.

She said, “There are a lot of new houses here and young families who rely on the playgroup. Our children feed into the Birches PS and Richmount PS, neither of which have nursery units, so the playgroup year is their introductory year before P1.

“We have four staff in total with a ratio of one leader to every eight children, which is greater than the nursery ratio which is one teacher to every 13 children.”

Mr Garvey said Richmount Playgroup is located in an area of rising demand and the upshot of any cuts will be a rise in costs to working parents. “If parents cannot get their child a free pre-school place they either have to pay more for childminding or pay fees for their child to attend a pre-school,” he said.

“The other alternative may be that they transport their child many miles to another location where there may be a low demand. The government is always pushing to get mothers back to work but this will not help.”

He added, “In terms of job cuts we would not envisage any as we have a rising demand for placements for children in the non-funded lower age group. The maximum number in a playgroup is 26 which requires at least four staff. If you reduce the numbers in a 24-place playgroup by four it becomes not financially viable to work with three staff. This means either finding more fee-paying children or reducing the overall numbers and reducing down to 16, effectively making a member of staff redundant.”

The department admits the funding cuts will be a “very significant reduction” in one year but said the Minister will continue to make the case for increased investment in education.