Judith Cochrane MLA said: “Everybody know the merits of pre-school education ,and having seen the changes in my youngest daughter over the past 7 months as she progresses through her pre-school year is testament to that fact.
I was pleased when the Minister announced the Review of Pre-School Admissions arrangements – but a review is meaningless if action is not taken on the recommendations. So I was delighted when the Minister made his statement to the house in January of this year on the actions he was intending to take on the back of this review, where he said “I have also identified some actions which I intend to progress immediately. The report confirms previous findings that the July/August birthdays admissions criterion can potentially disadvantage younger children in their pre-school year. I intend to revoke this criterion in the 1999 Regulations and also to remove it as a priority criterion for non-statutory providers”
When I probed the Minister a little further on this he said, “I acknowledge that a lot of the report’s actions will not come into effect this year – they will affect the programme of work for 2013-14. I hope to deal with the July August birthday issue in legislation connected to ESA. If that is not felt to be the appropriate manner in which to address the issue, I will introduce separate legislation, but I am keen to remove that provision from the statute book.”
In February at question time I asked the Minister if the removal of the July/August criterion will happen in time for the 2013/14 intake and explained that the admissions booklets would be produced in September of this year so really he needed to act now. And he said that he would do it as “quickly as possible.”
I am extremely dismayed therefore to hear from his officials that the Minister wants to wait until he has something more appropriate in its place before he removes a priority criterion.
I understand that the social disadvantage criterion needs to be looked at in more detail and this will be a more complicated change given that research shows that those children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds benefit more from a pre-school experience than those children from families who are not in receipt of income support or JSA. Although I do believe that we could still ensure those children receive a place – it just might not necessarily be their first preference.
But let’s be clear on this. We have established that the July/August criterion is wrong and that it potentially disadvantages younger children who are in the same academic year.
The Minister said that he would introduce separate legislation if ESA legislation was not in place quickly enough. Whilst ESA legislation is progressing it will not be complete in time. The Minister has the power to act on this now and parents want action.
I would also like to take this opportunity to comment on a few other findings from the Review and actions that the Minister specifically referred to in his January statement.
Firstly – have any steps been taken to ensure that the statistical data collected which is used to inform local area planning will be improved? Has the department even asked the Education & Library Boards and the Pre-School Education Advisory Groups for better data? I know the BELB were trying to gather figures for this year on July/August birthdays but were struggling to.
Secondly – Has the Department reviewed its policy on enrolment numbers to see if greater flexibility can be introduced for example for time limited extensions outside of a development proposal? This is particularly important for this year’s intake as it may allow some of those children who are currently without an offer to receive a place. Although I would caveat that by saying that I have spoken to some nursery principals who have suggested that the 13:1 ratio is already quite difficult particularly at the start of a school year when many children have very little independence.
Thirdly – Has there been any progress on area based planning? I understand that planning of places is particularly challenging as there can be significant variations in numbers in locations each year. It is difficult but not it is not rocket science and I personally have been able to work proactively with the pre-school providers and the education and library boards to try to alleviate the problems in east Belfast – for example securing additional sessions in St Colmcilles at Ballyhackamore. But area planning only works if you have criteria in place that prioritise the children that live in that area.
Continuing to include the July/ August birthday criterion will continue to allow children from elsewhere to displace children who live say a few streets away. For example, in the current intake (and I appreciate that it is still ongoing), some East Belfast nurseries have had to offer places to children who live in Conlig, Dunmurry and Greenisland because they were born in July/August. This may suit their parent because of where they work or where a grandparent lives but it is not fair and it should not be allowed to continue.
I personally have also done an analysis of the situation in my constituency and to be fair to the Minister there has been an increase in the number of places over the past few years. A rough estimate would show that we are now short of places by approximately 10% when comparing P1 intakes over the past 3 years to the number of pre-school places available. This 10% figure would be in line with the Department’s suggestion that approximately 10% of parents do not want a place for their child or they do not take up the offer of a place because it doesn’t suit their personal circumstances. My experience is that parents do want a place but the ‘personal circumstances’ for many of those who work are simply that they are unable to juggle to get children to a part time session – especially an afternoon session. So if that is their only choice because they have a job it is hardly fair.
The Department must take note of this when looking at a pre-school admissions code for the future. The reason that many cannot take up the offer of a part time place is that working parents need to combine it with working patterns and often this is just not possible no matter how hard they try. Not everyone can afford to pay £40 per day to have their child in a daycare environment that can drop the children to an afternoon session at 1215 and pick up again at 1445 – this is just one example of the difficulties that parents are facing.
Finally, have any improvements been made to the application process including a better communications strategy?
Next year, letters of offer should not be sent out when the schools are closed for Easter. I spent most of recess talking to distressed parents who felt they had nowhere else to turn for advice. The timings of these letters also put extra pressure on the staff in the education and library boards who were inundated with calls.
I think the Department is taking positive steps but it is just not quickly enough. Following an Alliance proposal to amend the admissions procedure to a 2 step process to give priority to children in their immediate pre-school year over those in their penultimate pre-school year, the previous Minister made these changes and it has made a difference. Today I am asking you Minister to take the next step now and remove the July/August criterion in time for the 2013/14 intake. Children are only in their pre-school year once. In 2 years time they will be in primary 2 – so fixing the problem then is just not good enough.