A service for children in Limavady which helps thousands of under-privileged families will close in August if cuts proposed by Sinn Féin Education Minister John O’Dowd aren’t stopped.
The Limavady Community Development Initiative’s (LCDI) Lifestart programme, which has operated for over 15 years, will be forced to close its doors in just four months if cuts of £1.7 million to the Early Years Budget go ahead, the manager of LCDI has said.
Damien Corr, the General Manager at LCDI, said he was stunned by the proposed cuts because the Minister who is proposing them, John O’Dowd, has been a supporter of pre-school initiatives and of the community development ethos.
“Such actions usually follow a period of consultation, but there was no such process, the decision was totally unexpected,” he said.
“I am particularly stunned because Minister O’Dowd has been a supporter of pre-school initiatives and of the community development ethos.
“Sinn Féin are positioning themselves as the anti-austerity party and champions of the vulnerable.
“How does the Minister square that position with the outworking of his drastic budget cut?”
Clare Thomson, Lifestart manager, said: “The three Lifestart family visitors deliver 3200 family contacts each year and that 50 per cent of these are in areas designated ‘in need’.
“25 per cent of the children on the programme have additional support needs such as hearing difficulties, developmental disability and autism etc.
“18 per cent of the Roe Valley clients are single parents.
“The project attracts people very evenly form both of the main traditions and from all socio-economic backgrounds, but in the final analysis, no-one could argue that our statistics do not constitute a significant representation of vulnerable families.”
Mr Corr added: “The principal loss if these cuts go ahead will be of the excellent service provided to families and children in the Roe Valley.
“However, the horrible corollary will be the loss of jobs of the three staff and the knock on effects to their families.
“There is also a significant loss of added value if the project goes for example the confidence building and empowerment of parents on the programme.
“Teachers in primary schools spend less valuable time on ‘Lifestart Children’ who in cognitive development terms are hitting the ground running.
“There is a very significant element of early intervention with issues like speech difficulties and valuable time and resource saving ‘signposting’.
“The Lifestart team and I were particularly disappointed when Minister O’Dowd seemed to wipe his hands clean of the issue during a radio interview with Early Years CEO Siobhan Fitzpatrick.
“He offered as rationale for the cuts that his department did not fund childcare.
“If the Minister characterises what we do as ‘childcare’ then perhaps he should have a closer look the projects he is sending to the scrapheap.”
Mrs Donna Laird is parent of a four-year-old and a one-year-old, both of whom have been on the programme since birth.
“I was shell-shocked at the thought of Lifestart terminating in a few months time,” she said.
“I have found the support from the family visitors reassuring and informative, it was great to realise that I am not alone and that most new parents are in the same boat.
“I also attended the parent and toddler group which is great for child socialisation and exchanging experience with other parents.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lifestart programme has had a positive effect not only on my children’s cognitive development but that I have also taken much from it. I would encourage all parents to support the call to stop this cut.”
LCDI say they have a petition available for signing in their reception and are urging people to sign up.
There is also the opportunity to sign online. Go to www.early-years.org