Dire warnings have been made over the disastrous effects of cuts to the early years funding in the Mid Ulster area.
It is feared that up to 2,500 free pre-school places could be lost, as well as the modern languages programme for primary schools, should the cuts go ahead.
The alarm was raised at an unusually busy monthly meeting of the Mid Ulster Council, during which no less than seven motions were raised, and the balance of power appeared to tip towards the SDLP.
Councillors voted in favour of a SDLP motion calling on the Minister of Education to ensure that the early years funding is protected against cuts.
Mid Ulster representatives also supported a UUP motion calling on the education minister to reinstate the modern languages programme for primary schools, which also faces the axe.
For the first time, Sinn Fein, the largest party on the council, lost a vote in the chamber.
Their defeat was compounded when they lost a second on the same night, eroding what many representatives had believed was a nationalist bulwark against Unionist proposals.
The idea of a ‘green’ block vote was exploded at the start of the proceeedings when SDLP councillors voted in favour of a failed DUP motion calling on the council to offer congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on the birth of their daughter Princess Charlotte.
Councillor Malachy Quinn said it had been ‘a very interesting’ meeting, which proved that political parties could reach consensus and work together to further shared aims.
The Coalisland representative proposed the motion criticising the early years funding cuts.
“Education forms the building blocks of our society and our economy. Under-investment and a lack of long-term strategy in education not only fails our children and young people: it is detrimental to the economy and to social justice”, he said.
“The SDLP believes that a child’s development hinges on a high quality early childhood education.”
Defending the proposed cuts, Sinn Fein Councillor Sean McPeake said that due to the shortfall in funding, the education department was no longer able to support all its services.
“I call for the department to be given enough money to fund its work, and I call on all Mid Ulster councillors to send a clear message to the Tory party, who are seemingly hellbent on ending public services”, he told the chamber.
He warned that if the cuts weren’t made to the early years fund, the department would have had to make up to 60 teachers redundant, which would have had a more damaging effect on the education system.
He also said that the 2,500 free school places would not be lost, as funding would be secured from different sources.
Independent Republican councillor Barry Monteith said that whereas he shared Councillor McPeake’s sentiment to stand against Tory cuts, councillors should also fight the cuts before them.
“The department of education has not had a great history of listening to councillors in this locality, given that Dungannon and Coalisland parents have had to fight for early years funding in the past”, he said.
He also noted how the department had managed to find the extra funding to fight the attempts of Clintyclay parents to keep their school open, in spite of the severe budget constraints.
“This is an area of high child poverty and we should be supporting this motion”, he said.
UUP Councillor Walter Cuddy supported the motion, and called on Sinn Fein to go back to their minister and try to find the money to fund the threatened services.
The motion was passed with the support of the SDLP, the UUP, DUP, and Indpendent Republican Barry Monteith’s votes.