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Early Years funding will mean Firs Playgroup stays open

Armagh’s Firs Playgroup has been saved from potential closure.

The cross-community facility, which caters for 34 families across the city and district, had been facing an uncertain future after Armagh I reported in April that £14,000 had been slashed from its budget.

But early last month, parents and staff accompanied SDLP Dominic Bradley to Stormont to lodge a petition signed by well over 2000 supporters.

Other petitions from across Northern Ireland were also lodged protesting at the drastic cuts to the Early Years Fund, which supports 153 organisations for young people, including pre-schools, playgroups and creches.

Today, (Thursday), the Education Minister John O’Dowd confirmed that £1.1 million had been acquired to support all of these groups.

It will keep them functioning up until March of next year.

And, by that time, a new cash source – the Pathway Fund – will be taking applications for funding for future years.

Mr O’Dowd said the funding announced today will “ensure current services continue until March 2016”.

He said: “Over recent months I have emphasised that supporting early years education was a priority. Since setting the budget in March, I committed to finding funding for early years organisations that had been affected by the reduced budget for the Early Years Fund.

“I am therefore relieved and delighted to now be in a position to offer additional funding that will secure existing services until March 2016.

“My department and the Executive more widely face enormous challenges as a result of the reductions imposed on us by the Westminster government.

“This has made the task of defending Early Years Provision enormously difficult.

“However, I have been able to secure savings in administration of the Fund through ongoing discussions with the Fund administrators. Funding to the groups will continue at the current level.

“Moving forward, I have already made clear that the Early Years Fund in its current format will end and that the Pathway Fund will be introduced, with awards made from April 2016.

“Today’s announcement will allow time for the new Fund to be established with minimum disruption to those groups receiving funding.”

Armagh I reported in April that the Firs Playgroup, based at Station Road in Armagh, could be forced to shuts its doors after the huge funding cut was revealed.

Minister John O’Dowd’s faced a reduction of £2 million through the Department’s Early Years budget.

In 2014/15 the budget for the Early Years Fund was £2.941 million. Following the reduction, Minister allocated £941,000 at the end of March to enable current recipients to receive funding until August 31, 2015 on a pro rata basis of the amount received for 2014/15.

It would have meant that the Firs Playgroup would have been closing its doors in September or shortly afterwards.

Across Northern Ireland the Early Years Fund has benefited 153 communities and created 177 jobs. It supports 2,500 early years places and has helped 620 children with special educational needs and 250 children whose first language is not English.

The Firs Playgroup had been overwhelmed by the support of the local community when handing in the petition.

Today there will be further reason to be grateful as people power has paid off.

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