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U-turn on summer schemes

July 6, 2010


By Brónagh Murphy

Summer schemes for special needs children have been given a reprieve after the Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) bowed to pressure from parents and politicians over proposed cuts.

The announcement that the summer schemes are to go ahead as originally planned was made following a series of recent meetings between SELB officials and public representatives.

Parents reacted angrily when the proposed cuts were announced almost two weeks ago and last week a public protest rally was held in Newry city centre.  It was stated how the most vulnerable children in society would be severely disadvantaged by the reduction of the schemes.

The Southern Education and Library Board (SELB) had initially announced plans to half the schemes, reducing them from ten days to just five.  Concessionary transport for the children to take them to and from the schemes was also to be abolished.  Rathore Special School in Newry is just one of many targeted by the cost-saving measures.

However, in the face of public protests and fierce criticism, the SELB has relented and reinstated the full two week scheme with concessionary transport.

In a statement issued following a monthly meeting on Thursday, members of the Southern and Western Education Boards said they ‘gave consideration to concerns that had been expressed regarding the recent adjustments to their Special School Summer Scheme’.

Following further discussions involving the Education Minister and senior Department of Education officials, it has been decided that the Special School Summer Scheme will be run for two weeks this year in both the SELB and WELB areas, with transport provided, the statement read.

Unprecedented

The statement continued: “Both Boards continue to emphasise the responsibility placed upon them to live within their budgets.  This, combined with the lateness of their allocations has created unprecedented pressures.  The SELB and WELB hope that the public understand the challenges of finding the very significant savings which will have to be implemented across services.”

Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said that despite difficult economic times and inevitable cutbacks, ELBs should seek alternative ways to make savings rather than targeting vulnerable children.

“Education and Library Boards must continue to demonstrate that the expenditure plans they have submitted are making the best use of the public funds allocated to them and will allow them to meet their targets while meeting their equality duties,” she said.

“I welcome the decisions from both boards to fully reinstate the schemes to two weeks with transport provided.  I know that parents and the children involved will also welcome this good news and look forward to enjoying the schemes.”

Ring-fenced

SDLP MLA and party education spokesperson Dominic Bradley welcomed the full restoration of the summer schemes and congratulated all involved in the campaign to have the service reinstated.

“This is very good news for the families concerned but the truth is that they should never have had to deal with this blow in the first place. Parents and carers are completely reliant on this limited back-up service and respite for their own quality of life and I can completely understand their absolute outrage when the cuts were announced. The SDLP will continue to campaign for the most vulnerable in our society to be excluded from any cuts,” he said.

“Parents and teachers have been very disappointed by the bureaucratic wrangling which has been ongoing between the Boards and the Department of Education on this issue with the children and their families in the middle losing out,” Mr Bradley continued.

“It is time that both the Boards and the Department showed a bit of leadership.  The Assembly Education Committee agreed to put it to the Department that the money for this important front-line service to the most vulnerable in our society be ring-fenced against future cuts so that we do not find ourselves in this situation next year.”

Lobbying

Sinn Féin’s Charlie Casey described the SELB’s u-turn as ‘a fantastic outcome for all concerned’.

“I am delighted with the result of the lobbying campaign against these cuts.  It demonstrates that the voice of the people has been heard,” Mr Casey said.

“Sinn Féin feels passionately that the most vulnerable in our society should be protected.”

His party colleague, Councillor Anthony Flynn, added: “Sinn Féin councillors, MLAs and MPs were vociferous on this issue.  We strongly believe that the Education and Library Boards should never have targeted these summer schemes for the chop and for this reason our local MLAs Mickey Brady and Cathal Boylan visited Rathore and Lisanally schools, our MP Conor Murphy wrote to the SELB to get the decision changed and our local councillors stood firm with local communities against these cuts.”

Vital

Voicing his satisfaction at the decision, Mr Kennedy said: “This is most welcome news and one that I know will be received gratefully from parents who use and depend on the programmes. As a local representative I was contacted by many parents who were hugely disappointed over the initial decision feeling that they had been let down by the education authorities.

“I am delighted that our continued protests have been listened to and that the schemes have been reinstated.  These schools provide a vital service for parents – many of whom have come to reply on this respite for two weeks of the holidays.  I am glad that the right decision has been reached in this instance.”


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