‘Devastating’ cuts hit Ballykelly playgroup

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A Ballykelly playgroup is facing “devastating” cuts that could result in the loss of £10,000 annual funding and mean dozens of families could be left without childcare, it has been claimed.

Thousands of people have signed an online petition opposing plans to slash £2 million from the Department of Education’s early years budget. It is claimed, the proposals could lead to the closure of up to 153 playgroups, day care facilities and services for youngsters with disabilities may have to close and the potential loss of 177 jobs.

Orchard Community Playgroup in Ballykelly is impacted and playgroup leader, Tara Del Cooper said news funding was being slashed “came out of the blue”.

Catering for children from the Ballykelly area, including Greysteel, Glack and Limavady, she said the service is a lifeline for many parents, and the early intervention the group provides makes a difference in helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up in areas, including vocabulary and social skills.

“It would be devastating,” said Mrs Cooper. “Anything up to 60 families could have no place for their children come September. The playgroup has been in operation for 40 plus years. What do we do with this building? It belongs to the community. Who is going to take that over, and what do you do with the building when there is no children in during the afternoon? Our summer scheme will be affected, so you’ll have this big building lying vacant in the afternoons.”

Mrs Cooper said the provision means highly trained staff identify issues which may not be picked up on at home. Without the DE’s financial support, services to children and families in local areas of greatest need would not be delivered, she said.

“My message to the Education Minister is we need this money. Our children need to be educated and we need to keep staff members, and we need to make sure our children are getting a good quality of care. We have a good environment where children can learn, where they can interact with each other. We provide for their health and well being, as well as being an education provider,” said Mrs Cooper.

Mrs Cooper added: “We can’t plan ahead. The money was taken off us without consultation. We need to keep this facility going. We need this money back - not just for us - but most importantly for children and the community.”

Education Minister John O’Dowd has told the Assembly protecting early years education is a priority if further funding can be found.