East Belfast: Services under attack

With harsher spending cuts in the pipeline, the Assembly’s current batch of cutbacks are already hitting schools and other educational facilities hard in East Belfast. In July, with construction set to begin, the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane announced that Strandtown Primary School would not be getting the new school building it was promised years ago. Now in August, Victoria Park primary School has also been told work on its much needed new purpose-built building has been postponed. The fact that these two nearby primary schools have both been denied funding compounds the longstanding neglect of primary education in East Belfast.

Following years of insufficient funding, massive investment is required, not further cutbacks.  Our schools and other services do a heroic job in light of the many difficulties they face. Many primary schools in the area, for example, have to provide for a much higher proportion of children in need of additional support than average. They do not however receive anything like the funding required to employ the IT staff, special needs assistants or pupil-welfare support workers needed to achieve this. In 2008, for example, ten primary schools in East Belfast reported they were forced to cut their special needs budget due to a lack of funding.

It is not only primary schools that are suffering from inadequate funding. East Belfast also suffers from a serious lack of nursery school places. In total, 1,113 applications were received for the 932 nursery places available for the 2010/11 year, meaning 1 in 6 children will lose out. Parents who cannot get a place for their child at the local nursery are often faced with the choice of travelling long distances, paying expensive fees to a private nursery or keeping their children at home. In disadvantaged areas the latter is often the only option.

There is a chronic lack of educational facilities for children and young people in East Belfast generally, and what little exists also faces cutbacks. The Department of Health has cut off funding to Playzone, for example, the after-schools service located in the Ballymac Centre that provides programmes for disadvantaged kids including homework support, healthy eating and PE.  This comes as a further blow to the local community, with parents and children recently hit with the closure of Beechfield Primary school and Balymacarrett Library nearby.

The Tory/Ulster Unionist East Belfast MLA Sir Reg Empey has rushed out a statement to “throw his weight behind” Playzone, but fails to mention that it is his party colleague, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey that is responsible.

Recent figures on under-achievement and absentee rates for older pupils in East Belfast demonstrate the long-lasting consequences of under-funding.

The parties in the Assembly Executive have nothing to offer but crocodile tears – they all voted through these cuts! The community needs to get organised and establish local campaign groups to fight-back whenever essential community services are threatened, and link-up with wider campaigns against the cutbacks that will develop across Northern Ireland over the coming months and years.

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