The row over funded pre-school places rumbles on, with Education Minister John O’Dowd advising parents he’s not in the business of providing free day care.
The minister was responding to last week’s protest by a Dromore man whose daughter couldn’t get a funded full-time pre-school place in town.
Angry after he and his wife were directed to Laurencetown in search of a place for their daughter, Heidi, Ronnie Herdman said their failure to gain a local place was tantamount to systemic discrimination against traditional families and working parents.
“Those of us who get married, get jobs and generally try to live right are constantly penalised whilst the ‘work-shy’ of society are taken by the hand for a stroll through a life of benefits luxury,” he said.
Mr O’Dowd responded by saying he and his department were focused on the needs of the children concerned.
“Research has shown,” he said, “that children from socially disadvantaged circumstances tend to experience more difficulty at school than other children and priority is, therefore, given to these children as part of wider efforts to tackle educational underachievement.
“The Pre-School Programme provides funded pre-school education - it is not free day care – therefore our focus is on the needs of the children.”
Sharing that view, one local mother, who did not want to be named, said children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds were exactly that, disadvantaged, compared to the children of working parents.
However, she argued too that the social disadvantage criterion did not appear to play a major part in the allocation of places in Dromore.
“My husband and I are both professionals and our child was allocated a funded place at Dromore Nursery School,” she said.
“Most of the children there are the children of working parents so it’s wrong to suggest places are only available to children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Dromore Nursery School principal Mrs Sharon Beattie confirmed social disadvantage allocations had never accounted for more than 10% of her intake.
As the allocation of places entered Stage Two, Mrs Beattie pointed out too that there remained eight available places, albeit part-time places, at Dromore Nursery.
It’s understood at least one other local provider also has part-time places available.
Mr O’Dowd said just under 96% or 22,623 children had been offered a pre-school place for 2015/16 at this stage of the process.
Some 85.6%, or 20,221, had been placed in their first preference setting, he added.
“This is very positive,” he said, “given the increase (almost 400) in the overall number of applications received this year.”
Mr O’Dowd said his officials would continue to work closely with the Education Authority “to ensure that every effort is made to find suitable places for children”.