More than 50 sports coaching jobs are under threat as an award-winning joint initiative between the IFA and GAA looks set to come to an end due to education cuts.
A last gasp attempt has been made to save the programme which is due to have its funding stopped on October 31.
The Curriculum Sports Programme (CSP) has been running since 2007, with IFA and GAA affiliated coaches delivering physical literacy to 38,000 primary school children per year across 450 Northern Ireland schools.
Members of the Irish Football Association, their Gaelic counterparts and elected representatives have held recent meetings with the acting head of the civil service to persuade a rethink of the education budget to allow the scheme to continue.
The IFA said it had been looking at ways to save the jobs and continue to run the programme. “Sponsorship or alternative funding are being explored,” said an IFA spokesperson, who confirmed 27 coaches had been ‘put on notice’ due to the cessation of funding.
“This is an award-winning joint initiative between the IFA and GAA. It would be very disappointing to lose this cross community project, to lose these coaches and for the primary school children to miss out on an important part of their education.”
Ulster GAA’s Eugene Young said the programme was not specifically focused of football or GAA and was designed to help children with basic physical skills such as throwing, catching, balance, strength, agility and co-ordination.
Mr Young said: “We met the head of the civil service two weeks ago and last Tuesday political figures from across the parties met jointly with the David Sterling.
“We have been trying to ensure that civil servants are taking decisions on full information.
“We recognise the immense pressure the budget is under but it was our duty to just state the case for the programme and highlighted the positives that it brings to schools and community.”
He said that more than 85% of schools involved in the CSP would not provide the minimum requirement of two hours of physical education a week without the delivery of the programme, adding that a cross-border study into obesity found that children in Ulster who are on this programme had superior physical literacy skills than their counterparts in the south.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler, one of those politicians who attended last week’s meeting with the head of the civil service, said: “Mr Sterling seemed amenable to having a look at it again.
“The real pity is some of those parties who attended the meeting have the power to get Stormont back up and running again and address this issue at the assembly.”
Mr Butler believed the programme was a ‘vital’ service which is complimentary to under pressure teachers.
He commented: “Those who spoke at the meeting put a high emphasis on the physical aspects of this programme. I spoke about the benefits to mental health and wellbeing of the social interaction and physical activity.
“In terms of the overall budget we didn’t think it was a colossal amount of money. We had thought that given the measurable success that the IFA and GAA coaches had brought that it merited a three-month delay in the implementation of it to allow for further consideration.”
He added: “When you’re trying to attract the highest calibre of coach, and maintain the high level we’re at, we need to be able to offer some element of job security.”
In 2014 the Curriculum Sports Programme won the Coaching Project of the Year in the UK.
It was also held up as good practice in Canada highlighting the co-operation between government departments and governing bodies for sport.
While the Department of Education said the programme had helped primary school teachers in delivering PE lessons, it said the decision to cut the funding came down to pressures on budget.
A spokesperson said: “The Department of Education recognises the contribution that the Curriculum Sports Programme (CSP) has made at a local level in helping to raise the confidence of, and provide support to, primary teachers in delivering PE.
“The schools taking part in the programme were allocated coaches on the understanding that the class teacher would be present at all times to assist in the delivery of the sessions in order to develop their own knowledge and skills and to enable them to follow up as appropriate in their own teaching.”
They continued: “Teachers in participating primary schools have been involved with the programme for 10 years and the department would have expected that the skills and confidence of the teachers involved will have improved significantly over this period.
“Schools are responsible for delivering the statutory curriculum, including PE which is compulsory for all pupils between the ages of four and 16, and they can use their delegated budget to employ coaches if they deem this as a priority for their school.
“The CSP was provided under contract by the GAA and IFA and since 2010/11 the department has invested a total of £10.3 million in the programme.
“The financial pressures on the education budget in 2017-18 has meant that the continued annual payment of £1.3 million for this contract has not been possible without further reductions in the budget for the department’s core services of early years, youth and schools.
“The department wrote to the IFA and the GAA on July 25, formally notifying them that the contract for the Curriculum Sports Programme will not be renewed beyond October 31.”