The director of a Craigavon-based women’s support centre has said that funding cuts to the early years sector would be “devastating” for her organisation.
Chrysalis Women’s Centre, which is based in Legahory, is one of the 187 early years settings in Northern Ireland that benefits from the Pathway Fund, one of the Department of Education’s supports for the sector.
Due to proposed funding cuts at the Department, support for the Pathway Fund only remains in place until the end of June, leaving many organisations who benefit from the project in the dark about what the future may hold.
Ruth McKeever says that the Pathway Fund is at the “core” of the children’s’ services offered by Chrysalis Women’s Centre.
“If this funding closes, I will have to close my child-care service down. That’s it,” she said.
The stated aims of the Pathway Fund are to improve the development of children who are at risk of “not reaching their full educational potential” and helping to create an “enhanced, more sustainable” early years sector.
It supports provision of early years education and learning services for children aged 0-4.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The Department has now received its budget allocation for 2023-24 from the Northern Ireland Office and is working through the detail. The allocation is extremely challenging and may require significant reductions across a wide range of areas to remain within budget.
“The Department will confirm the final Pathway Fund allocation following consideration of the education budget.”
Childcare provision is just one of the many services provided to women at Chrysalis Women’s Centre. Among the benefits they provide are food and baby banks and education courses to help women get into the labour market.
They also offer well-being courses which can look at bereavement, menopause and mental health, alongside fitness courses for women. There is also an in-house counselling service which is entirely free and available for both women and men.
The childcare service, which supports upwards of 70 children per year and is supported through Pathway, is described by Ruth as being for women “to be able to attend here and not have any barriers to receiving the services we provide”.
Ruth explained: “Without that fund, we will be unable to provide the services that we are currently providing because all those services that we have here, the women rely on being able to put their children into that childcare service to gain whether it be a qualification or a counselling service or attending a well-being group.
“It’s a lot more than that because we’re in Craigavon and it’s one of the highest deprived areas in Northern Ireland and so you’re working with quite complex families.”
The staff at Chrysalis Women’s Centre are trained in a range of areas to help support the children and their families, with the facility providing many benefits to the kids in its care.
“It just prepares them emotionally and socially…It’s a platform or a foundation from the age of nought to four where they can gain all these essential skills for their future,” Ruth said.
Of the 70 children, some have additional needs, while many others do not speak English as their first language.
And without that funding, these children will miss out on these skills and benefits that they obtain in their early years at the centre.
“We see these kids coming in, no speech at all, very limited social skills, and then you see them going out the other end of the door at age four and they’re thriving. Their mums and carers are the same, where they have access services here to support them.
“This is early intervention. We always bang on about early intervention. All the reports have been done about early intervention and they’re taking one of the biggest resources for early intervention out of Northern Ireland.”
Ruth says that the implications are huge.
“We have 70 children a year, but that’s our target. We always end up with more than that. If you were thinking of the next five years, seventy times five, all those children are going to lose out. We’re only one organisation in the ABC area out of 20 who benefit from the fund. That’s a lot of kids that are going to lose this.
“If this Pathway Fund goes, all these children, they’re not going to get this. Where are we going to be when they hit 15, 16 or 20? They won’t have been given the same life chances as perhaps other children in Northern Ireland.”
She added: “The knock-on effect if our childcare facility was to close is that it would eventually close this building. This centre has been operating for 30 years supporting the community and beyond. That’s the reality of every Pathway Fund organisation. We see doors closing across Northern Ireland on the back of what is a small amount of money. We received £30,000. That’s nothing for all those other services that you’re gaining within.”
The centre wrote to the head of the Civil Service and to the Secretary of State, but no assurances were forthcoming. They replied that funding was available until the end of June, but that after this there would be cuts to the budget.
Ruth says that she wants the public to help lobby on the issue to ensure funding for organisations such as Chrysalis Women’s Centre is secure.
When asked what the public can do to help the campaign, she said: “Put it on their social media platforms and speak to their local representatives. Let’s get this out there so we can’t be ignored because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to shout as loud as we can and we need the public to shout as loud as they can because these kids have no voice.”
To Ruth, if the funding ends, that’s the “damage done,” which could take years and a lot more money to repair.
“These children are the lost children if this funding goes,” she said.