Judith Cochrane MLA said: “The lack of adequate pre-school provision has been a real issue across Northern Ireland and particularly in East Belfast.
“Children who have high-quality pre-school experience are better prepared for primary school and learn more quickly. It is absolutely vital that the Education Minister ensures the availability of a place for every child.
“We need action on this issue and I would be concerned if the Department was to merely conduct another lengthy review and not progress the recommendations as has been the case before.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the previous Minister for meeting with Alliance representatives last September and taking on board our proposal to amend the application process to ensure that children in their immediate pre-school year would receive preference over those in their penultimate year. This has certainly made a difference in East Belfast this year but despite this change there was still a worrying oversubscription rate. Thankfully, by proactively working with the Department, BELB and parents in East Belfast, we have managed to secure another 16 places in St Colmcilles – a playgroup with an excellent reputation for quality pre-school provision.
“Obviously any decisions to enable demand across Northern Ireland to be met will have financial implications, but that should not stop us from planning for the best for our children. And in the short term the Department may have to take difficult decisions for example to convert some full time places into part time places in order to try and match pre-school provision with the number of P1 places in each area. Indeed, research indicates that there is no additional benefit for children who attend pre-school on a full time basis compared to those on a part time basis. Therefore the arguments for full-time have to be looked at within a social context for the family and the economy, and I believe a funding formula should be applied to enable smaller groups in rural settings to be sustained.
“The Pre-school Education Expansion Programme has gone a long way to improving provision, but more is left to do. Parents don’t want and our children don’t need review after review after review. If a wider review is to take place – let’s give the commitment that action will then be taken quickly to implement recommendations and ensure that our children have the best start in their educational life no matter where in Northern Ireland they live or what background they come from. Let’s face it – children only have one immediate pre-school year – and the longer this issue remains unaddressed, the more children are missing out.”