The Department of Education (DE) ended funding for the Curriculum Sports Programme, which provided primary schools with coaches from the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Irish Football Association (IFA), in October 2018, citing “pressures on the education budget”. The decision has left almost 40,000 children without professional coaching and 50 coaches without their posts.
The scheme, introduced in 2007, served over 400 primary schools in the school year 2017-18, reaching 36,000 students with an almost equal gender split and costing the Department £1.3 million. Coaches had previously been issued redundancy notices in October 2017, when the DE informed schools that the programme was to be closed, but a reprieve extended the scheme to March 2018. A further budgetary boost of £750,000 extended the programme to October 2018.
Announcing the further extension of the programme in March of last year, the DE said that it had spent £11 million on the scheme from October 2010 to that point. Speaking after the announcement of the closure of the scheme, former All-Ireland winner with the Armagh Gaelic football team and current SDLP MLA Justin McNulty, said that it was “sickening” that the £550,000 needed to extend the programme into April 2019, bringing it toward the end of the school year and to the end of the financial year, could not be found in either education funding or in any other department’s budget.
There was some hope expressed that the scheme, which employed 50 coaches, could be revived, or that a similar scheme could be introduced. Speaking on what he called a “very sad day”, IFA Director Of Football Development Michael Boyd revealed that a series of meetings had taken place between the DE, GAA and IFA to discuss alternatives to launch at the beginning of the next financial year, April 2019.
Boyd spoke on the final day of coaching under the programme, which he eulogised as a “fantastic programme which benefitted schools and children across Northern Ireland”. When the reprieve of March 2018 was announced, the IFA described their part in the programme as “primary school coaches work[ing] in communities across Northern Ireland and teach[ing] children from P1-P3 the basic fundamental movement skills required for running, jumping and catching”. A statement read that the programme provided a “vital service both for the schools and for broader society”.
Ulster GAA Chief Executive Brian McAvoy echoed the sentiments of Boyd, claiming that the provincial board were “bitterly disappointed to have staff made redundant” and that “Ulster GAA was left with no choice but to end our involvement with the programme”.
A DE spokesperson said: “The Department of Education recognises the contribution that the curriculum sports programme has made in helping to raise the confidence of young children and the support it provides to primary teachers in delivering PE. The programme was not specifically intended to support the development of either Gaelic games or soccer.
“However, the pressures on the education budget mean further funding cannot be made available in 2018/19 without impacting other areas of the department’s budget and increasing the risk of an overspend.”