Rural playgroups under threat after funding rejection

Rural playgroups under threat after funding rejection

10 April 2019

A FUNDING crisis could potentially result in the closure of three of the district’s leading pre-school playgroups.

The groups in Bishopscourt, Strangford and Saul have failed to secure funding under The Pathway Fund administered by the Early Years Partnership which is planning to hand out just over £2.6m in funding this year to 140 organisations across the province.

The leaders of the three local playgroups have this week joined forces to warn of the impact the decision will have on vulnerable rural areas.

They have also called for ring-fenced money to be provided so organisations who look after children at the most critical time in their development can continue to deliver a service and look to the future with confidence.

News of the funding blow comes at a time when the various playgroups are organising additional fundraising activities to generate income and appealing to parents for donations of everyday essentials including loo roll, wipes, photocopying paper and even bin bags.

Concern is also mounting that the failure to secure cash from The Pathway Fund could result in the playgroups being unable to pay staff over the summer.

Nuala Mulholland, from Tiny Toons in Bishopscourt, Delia McLaughlin, from Saul pre-school playgroup, and Wanda Smyth, from Playlinks in Strangford, are concerned at the rejection of their respective funding applications and fear rural areas are viewed as a “soft touch” by funding bodies.

“It is a constant battle to keep going and we have to apply for funding every year,” Nuala explained. “We have the support of parents behind us and are working to address social isolation in rural areas but our funding bids are being rejected. We secured money from The Pathway Fund last year but our application for 1019/20 has been rejected.

“Playgroups in rural areas deliver the same curriculum as those based in towns, yet it is the rural playgroups which seem to suffer most. The one constant we have is the support of parents which is reassuring.”

Delia said the playgroups offered a vital service to parents in rural areas which they would not otherwise have.

“We are working to combat social isolation and the service we deliver helps address that. The funding application forms are quite complicated and we are all making applications to other organisations to secure money and organising our own separate fundraisers,” she explained.

“The bottom line is that The Pathway Fund bid has not been successful and it will be another year before we can reapply.”

Delia said that while the playgroup in Saul was not under an immediate closure threat, the funding decision placed an inevitable question mark over its long term future.

She added: “We are having to fundraise to supplement our income, to keep going and pay staff. The situation is very frustrating and annoying.”

Wanda, who revealed that the Strangford playgroup has already had to reduce staff working hours, said she didn’t know if there will be enough money to pay them over the summer.

“If we have a child with individual needs we cannot get money to provide them with a one-on-one service, but if we were a primary school there would be money for a classroom assistant,” she said.

“We are looking for bargains in shops and asking parents to help out by donating the everyday items we need. We never had to do this before. In addition, we have also been given extended time by some of our suppliers to pay bills as we work to balance the books.”

A spokesperson for Early Years said application assessments were subjected to a review by an independent panel. 

“The Pathway Fund is a competitive funding stream with greater competition in 2019/20 with 31 additional applications received than in the previous year for the period 2018/19.

“Applicants who do not receive an award are provided with a one-to-one feedback clinic from Early Years. 

“The Award letters issued in 2018/19 made clear that the funding was for one year only, that there can be no expectation of funding in future years and that settings must not enter into commitments beyond the funding period.”

The spokesperson added: “Settings may reapply each year to the fund and will be assessed if they meet the eligibility criteria.The Pathway Fund does not support capital expenditure.”