Education Authority says sorry over handling of nursery cuts plan


The Education Authority (EA) has apologised for its handling of controversial plans to cut special school nursery hours.

EA chairwoman Sharon O’Connor told MLAs on Stormont’s Education Scrutiny Committee that she was sorry for any distress they may have caused.

She said: “If parents are upset I am more than happy to apologise to them.”

The EA proposal to slash pre-school provision from 22 to 12 hours a week from September was heavily criticised by parents, school principals and governors.

Former education minister John O’Dowd ordered a review and last week a series of interim measures including a six-month review were announced and the authority said it would not be cutting hours until at least September 2017.

Ms O’Connor said lessons would be learned.

“I would not defend the level of engagement,” she added. “But we are in a difficult set of circumstances. We are trying to build as we go and we will certainly learn from this on how we engage with parents and the population in general.”

There was also an apology from the EA interim chief executive after incorrect information was given to the committee in March which stated no school principals had made contact to express concern about the cuts between October 2015 and the hearing date.

Gavin Boyd said: “That submission was incorrect.

“I had received that report in reference to the concerns to the worries of parents, governors and school principals.

“For that I have unreservedly apologised to the committee. It was never our intention to mislead the committee.”

During a lengthy session, Ms O’Connor, Mr Boyd and Dr Clare Mangan, EA regional managing director, were grilled by politicians who said they had been lobbied by anxious parents and school staff.

In a briefing, Dr Mangan outlined a 20% increase in demand for special needs nursery places when compared to 2015 but insisted the plan to cut hours was not about funding.

“This is a significant and unprecedented increase in the number of children identified in the early years as needing special educational needs.

“This is not about resources. This is about meeting the needs of the children,” she said.

While he welcomed the apology, East Belfast Alliance Party MLA Chris Lyttle was among the most vocal in his criticism.

He said: “The approach has been unacceptable. It has been inconsistent, it has been contradictory, evidentially disputed and there has been wholly inadequate communication and engagement.

“I welcome the fact that has been implicitly and explicitly acknowledged by way of an apology and an engagement process that has been put in place that was in no way part of the previous process that was scheduled to complete in this month.”

DUP MLA Carla Lockhart also outlined concerns.

“The communication has been terrible,” she said. “I think that is a real indictment of the authority.

“Parents are upset. Parents are very upset and we, as a committee are upset for them.

“I think there has to be a degree of humility in saying that there has been a catalogue of errors.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein committee chairman Barry McElduff claimed the public and political representatives were “not impressed” with the authority, adding that the contentious issue had not yet been fully resolved.