Primary school sports coaching government funding ends
The Department of Education (DE) has confirmed that funding for the schools curriculum sports programme is to end.
The scheme provided primary schools with a coach from either the GAA or Irish Football Association (IFA), employing more than 50 coaches.
The DE said it could not make further funding available due to "pressures on the education budget".
It also said it had approached other executive departments to find money for the programme without success.
The curriculum sports programme was introduced in schools in 2007.
£1.3m per year
It supported the PE curriculum by placing about 50 coaches in more than 400 primary schools each year.
The coaches provided up to an hour of soccer or GAA activity a week for each participating class of pupils.
In 2016-17 more than 36,000 pupils benefited from coaching, almost equally split between boys and girls.
Funding the programme cost the DE about £1.3m per year.
The sports programme had previously been reprieved in 2017 and earlier in 2018.
In October, 2017 coaches were issued with redundancy notices when the DE informed schools it was unable to continue the programme.
At the time, the department said cuts were necessary to ensure it remained within its budget and said it was not in a position to continue the programme beyond 31 October 2017.
The department did manage to find the money to keep the programme running until March 2018, and gave no guarantees that it would continue beyond then.
In March 2018 it announced that the sports programme would continue to be funded until October 2018.
In confirming that funding for the scheme would end on 31 October, the DE said it had invested £11m in the programme since 2010.
"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," a spokesperson said.
"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."
The coaches in the scheme are employed by the GAA and IFA, but their future is uncertain due to the withdrawal of funding.
Julian Costello, principal of Maine Integrated Primary School in Randalstown, County Antrim, said his school had benefitted greatly from the scheme.
"To me, it's another example of policy-makers and decision-makers failing to see the importance of sport in our schools," he said
"The challenge we're facing at the moment as a school - as are many others - is catering for the emotional health and well-being of the children.
"We are also trying to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity and numerous studies have shown the importance of physical exercise in addressing those two issues.
"So I think the decision [to end the funding] is incredibly short-sighted."
The decision has been described as "sickening" by SDLP MLA - and former Armagh GAA player - Justin McNulty.
"The Department of Education has failed to find the £550,000 to see the programme though to April 2019," he said.
"Both sporting organisations are totally maddened at this decision."
"The people who are failed most however are the thousands of children who will be denied participation in this programme."