OUTDOOR LEARNING AND RESIDENTIAL SECTOR IN NORTHERN IRELAND ON THE BRINK UNLESS COVID CASH IS RELEASED WITHIN WEEKS

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Promise of support welcomed but time is running out 

Whilst welcoming the announcement of a Covid-19 support package, a  Group of Outdoor Learning and Residential Centres in Northern Ireland who partner with the Education Authority (EA) to cater for more than 45000 children and young people annually have urged the Northern Ireland Assembly to fast-track the release of emergency COVID-19 funding – or run the risk of the sector being decimated.

The Group which includes centres run by YMCA, GirlGuiding Ulster, The Share Discovery Village, Boys Brigade and Scouts, has welcomed the announcement by the Finance Minister of a £1m emergency aid package for Outdoor Learning and Residential Centres which is a vital lifeline to enable the continuation of this work but a spokesman warned today: “We acknowledge the support of the Department of Education in identifying the value of this work but unless the cash is made available within weeks, centres will be unable to plan for the future and this will plunge the sector into further crisis.”

John Peacock, Director of YMCA Ireland said the YMCA National Outdoor Centre at Greenhill, Newcastle, County Down was facing the worst crisis in its 100 year history, with some very difficult decisions around 20 staff member’s jobs, unless the Assembly steps in quickly.

He said Greenhill’s situation was similar to many in this Outdoor learning group with the County Down facility losing 95% of its normal annual income due to the impact of the virus in 2020.

“Whilst we have been able to reduce our cost base significantly since March of this year and avail of Government support through the furlough scheme, we are now looking at the possibility of losing staff as we are rapidly running out of cash. Furthermore, with around 80% of our annual income coming from bookings between April and September we need clarity and certainty around our finances and staffing urgently, so we can reassure groups that we are open for business and in a position to secure bookings for 2021. We, like many in the sector, normally receive bookings for Spring and Summer around now.  As we stand today, we have virtually nothing booked for next year.

“We are genuinely fearful that unless we can provide reassurance around being able to service bookings – and have our staff in place from Spring time onwards, that schools, youth groups and other potential users may simply choose to do nothing in 2021.  If that ends up being the case, our centre which caters for more than 10,000 children and young people every year will find itself in serious difficulties. I am sure that will also be the case for our colleagues who run their centres at Lisnaskea, Lorne, Culcavy and Crawfordsburn.”

YMCA

John Peacock said his colleagues at the YMCA’s Greenhill Centre, located on a 17 acre site at the foot of The Mourne Mountains and includes the well-known Glenada House, had not ‘sat on their hands’ since the first Northern Ireland lockdown in March this year.   “We have launched several new initiatives and have been part of the Covid-19 Food Delivery service in Newcastle and providing support to families who are in crisis.  We have also delivered a summer programme for The Fostering Network, assisting 30 children per week, and are working on building partnership with the South Eastern HSC Trust.

“We, like our colleagues within The Boys Brigade, Scouts, Girl Guides and The Share Discovery Village play a vital role in the educational, emotional and social development of young people. These services are now facing decimation unless the monies set aside by The Northern Ireland Executive are dispersed as soon as possible.

“Whilst we very much appreciate the support of the Department of Education in promoting our cause, we are still urgently awaiting clarity on the delivery of the £1m that has been set aside for the Outdoor Learning and Residential Centre sector in Northern Ireland.  We are today calling on Ministers to commit to fast tracking the funding, so that we can plan for the short and medium term with some degree of clarity and certainty.”

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