As Northern Ireland goes to the polls this Thursday 5th May for the NI Assembly election, Ni4kids asked our main political parties to tell us how they plan to step up for the country’s children and families if elected.

It’s been an incredibly tough couple of years, with our children often bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. As well as illness and bereavement, families have coped with lockdowns, restrictions and disruption to work and education, and have missed out on precious time with friends and loved ones.

With the cost-of-living crisis making things even tougher, we wanted to see where our politicians stand on the issues that matter to our readers. We want to know what they plan to do to tackle these issues and why they deserve your vote.

Q1 With the rise in the cost of living and prices for essential items continuing to soar, thus piling more pressure on struggling households, what are your plans for relieving financial pressure on families?

Patricia O’Lynn (Alliance)

Alliance is deeply concerned about the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland. With so many families already struggling to make ends meet, we are now facing the biggest fall in living standards since comparable records began, as inflation continues to erode the value of wages and benefits.

We will:

● Introduce a home heating support grant voucher scheme targeted at low-income households

● Roll out a £20 per week child payment to protect children in already vulnerable to poverty

● Work closely with the local banking sector to monitor the impact of rising interest rates

● Explore initiatives to improve the affordability of food, particularly local produce

Dolores Kelly (SDLP)

The SDLP believes that the priority of this election should be the cost-of-living as spiralling costs push more and more people here into poverty. People here need urgent support and the SDLP is determined to deliver for them.

We have published our six-point cost-of-living plan. We would pass emergency legislation to free up £300 million of funding to tackle the current emergency that would be used to deliver a £200 payment to every household, extend the £100 Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme and relaunch the Free School Meal Payment Scheme for the remainder of the year.

These three schemes would provide £1272 of support to a family with two children on low incomes. We would also reduce the cap on the profits of energy companies. Currently, they are permitted 2% of revenue as profit whether their profit is £100,000 or £10,000,000. This cap should be reduced and the savings passed onto consumers. We would also press the British Government to impose a one-year VAT holiday for domestic energy and a windfall tax on energy companies.

Taken together, these measures would make a meaningful difference to people across the north, who are struggling financially.

Q2. Unlike the rest of the UK, where parents can avail of 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4-year-olds, Northern Ireland still does not have a scheme like this. Why is Northern Ireland the only devolved nation not to have this scheme in place and what are your plans for addressing this?

Jennifer Gilmour (DUP)

Part of our 5-point plan for Northern Ireland specifically addresses help for working families, including the provision of 30 hours free childcare. We believe that this should be introduced to Northern Ireland and it is a priority for the DUP. We surveyed over 1,000 people last year on this issue and it is something which is having a significant impact on family budgets, with many parents delaying their return to work, or being forced to change career because of childcare costs which are often higher than their monthly mortgage payment.

Patricia O’Lynn

Our childcare system in Northern Ireland is light years behind. Childcare provision benefits us all: parents, carers, employers, communities and, most importantly, children. It is vital the Executive introduces policies to safeguard the development of our youngest children and mitigate long term effects the lack of strategic policies have had on early education and childcare in the past.

We will introduce the following policies:

● A Childcare Strategy, co-designed and co-produced by stakeholders and professionals which ensures the annual budget is spent well. This is an overdue commitment from New Decade, New Approach which must be realised

● A full costed analysis of the resources required to deliver a full time, high quality childcare place

● A universal, affordable childcare scheme, with fully-funded hours paid directly to providers

● An awareness campaign to provide families with the information on assistance for the financial costs of childcare

● A review of SureStart funding and expanding to include the additional 22 areas targeted in 2021

● Movement towards universal full-time provision for all pre-school children and a standardisation of the school day for these children.

● Enhancement of early childhood development with a focus on nurturing for pre-school aged settings, including nurture rooms, outdoor learning and play.

Dolores Kelly

The SDLP recognises the pressure being placed on parents as a result of spiralling childcare costs, with many parents, particularly women, being forced to take on extra shifts or change jobs to pay for the extortionate costs. Many other parents have been forced to give up their careers to care for their children. Our manifesto includes the commitment to expand free pre-school childcare from 12.5 hours per week to 30 hours per week for all parents. This will be available on a flexible basis to meet the needs of working parents. We are also committed to enhancing antenatal support, expanding early years initiatives for 0-2 year olds and developing a world-class early years system.

In addition to these proposals, we have also committed to developing a Children’s Future Fund, which would see £500 invested for every child at birth and then at age 10 as well, available to access when the child turns 18. This would ensure that no child leaves the family home without savings or financial support of their own.

Q3. Are there any plans to increase the number of hours of free pre-school education, which currently stands at just 12.5 hours per week? There is little flexibility for parents, in particular mums, to go out to work when this equates to just 2.5 hours per day, five days a week.

Patricia O’Lynn

See above – we want to see movement towards universal full-time provision for all pre-school children and a standardisation of the school day for these children, for the very reason that the current hours provided are inflexible and do not serve working families.

Dolores Kelly

Please see above answer.

Q4. Academic selection is still a major talking point for most parties and remains an unresolved issue. Following the recent creation of a Schools’ Entrance Assessment Group, which has been backed by approximately 60 grammar schools and will see some parents having to pay to enter their child for the test, will a definitive decision be made on a way forward for academic selection?

Jennifer Gilmour

We are supportive of parental choice in education and every year thousands of children and parents choose to enter the AQE and GL tests. Over recent years we have encouraged co-operation and a move towards a single entrance test and have welcomed the progress made in this area. We believe that children should transfer to the post-primary school which is best suited to their needs and this should not be dictated by an ability to pay. Children from all backgrounds should be on a level playing field when it comes to transfer.

Patricia O’Lynn

It is unfair and unnecessary for our 10 and 11-year-old children to sit transfer tests or use academic criteria to transfer into a common curriculum in Key Stage 3. We want to see certainty on the way forward so pupils and their families know if and how to prepare.

Dolores Kelly

The SDLP is committed to seeing academic selection brought to an end. The pandemic has brought into focus the extent of this unfair system which labels children even before they have reached their teens. We welcomed the move by schools to a single transfer test last year and believe it will be an important step on the road to seeing this harmful practice done away with once and for all. In any Programme for Government, we will seek to establish a time-bound commission to explore how we can further reduce and eventually eliminate academic selection. We also support the Independent Review of Education and have contributed to its work.

We have also committed in our manifesto to tackling the hidden costs of education – no child should be held back as a result of a lack of financial means.

5. Following the passing of the Integrated Education Bill in March this year – what is your strategy for providing integrated education in Northern Ireland and committing to promoting the education of children together?

Jennifer Gilmour

We want to see children from all backgrounds growing up and educated together. Unfortunately, the Integrated Education Bill ignores that many of our Controlled and Maintained schools are educating children from all backgrounds together. However, they will now be discriminated against simply because they do not have an “integrated” tag in their name. Ultimately in Northern Ireland we would like to see a single education system in place, but whilst working towards that it is vital that there is fair funding for all schools.

Patricia O’Lynn

The Integrated Education Bill was brought by an Alliance MLA – Kellie Armstrong – and we are incredibly proud of what it achieved. We will continue to champion and promote integrated education as one way to deliver a genuinely shared society.

Dolores Kelly

The SDLP has a long history of supporting integrated education, both in our words and deeds. We have also backed our commitment with financial support when Mark Durkan served as Finance Minister.

While recognising the flaws in the recent Integrated Education Bill, we worked with its authors to ensure it passed and successfully moved 15 amendments to improve it. We welcome the fact that around 60% of schools are involved in some sort of shared education initiative and want to see this number increased. We also support specific initiatives to empower the Integrated Education sector.

Q6. Our children and young people were hugely impacted by the lockdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, with schools closing and homeschooling putting additional strain on working parents and families as a whole. According to NICCY, there has been a 24% increase in children attending A&E with mental health crisis. What are your plans or commitments to prioritising children’s mental health and support for parents and children in dealing with the effects of this?

Jennifer Gilmour

We support the proposals put forward by the Pure Mental NI group which includes a pledge to fully fund the Mental Health Strategy, continue primary school counselling beyond a pilot programme and to provide metal health training for school staff. Ensuring there is an integrated approach to mental health in school life is important and we must ensure that there are effective interventions in this area for young people.

Patricia O’Lynn

We absolutely recognise the effect the pandemic has had on young people and their families. It has exacerbated the need for investment in mental health services for young people.

Alliance will:

● Embed a multidisciplinary, cross-departmental approach to prioritise and improve infant mental health

● Endorse the key recommendations of the ‘Stronger from the Start’ infant mental health campaign

● Develop and fund an infant and early childhood workforce strategy

● Increase funding allocation for children and adolescent mental health actions from the Mental Health Strategy 2021-31

● Endorse the ‘Elephant in the Room Campaign’ and introduce a youth-led mental health campaign, challenging the culture of silence and negative stigma

● Work with young people to develop a new and positive language around mental health by creating a ‘mental health dictionary’ which could be used as part of a mental health curriculum programme

● Create a compulsory curriculum programme for all schools and colleges on mental health and well-being that helps to raise awareness and challenge stigma and allows young people to access consistent mental health information

● Create a website for young people, designed by young people, to provide mental health information, support, and to raise awareness and challenge stigma

● Ensure no young person waits too long for counselling services, by increasing the sustainability of long-term workforce planning and working with the third sector

Dolores Kelly

The SDLP recognises the challenges the mental health crisis is causing for people of all ages, particularly exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. For too long, mental health has been viewed as the poor cousin of the health service. We need to change that and give mental health the importance it deserves within the Department and support services the resources they need.

For young people in schools, we support the expansion of counselling for primary school children, the provision of additional mental health training for school staff and psychological support services for children with Special Educational Needs. We are fully committed to funding the 10-year Mental Health Strategy and will appoint a Junior Minister with responsibility for mental health to ensure it is given the importance it deserves. We would also ensure the Protect Life 2 – the Suicide Prevention Strategy is fully resourced and implemented.

We have also called for a specific strategy to be put in place by the Department of Education to help young people recover from the Covid pandemic, taking into account the huge impact that it has had in a whole range of areas, including mental well-being.

 

 

NB: The UUP, Sinn Féin, The Green Party, People Before Profit and the TUV were also invited to take part in this interview. There was no response to our request from these parties.

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