FUNDING for an award-winning sports coaching programme that has improved the physical and mental well-being of thousands of Fermanagh schoolchildren over the last 10 years will not be available after the end of March.

Under the Curriculum Sports Programme, coaches from the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) work with Primary 1 to Primary 4 pupils to encourage them to embrace a healthy lifestyle from a young age.

The scheme has won coaching awards in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

At the end of last summer, the Impartial Reporter revealed that around 50 IFA and GAA coaches across Northern Ireland were set to lose their jobs after the Department of Education decided to stop funding the programme.

Now, in a letter to Fermanagh and Omagh District Councillor Raymond Farrell, the IFA has admitted that it “cannot guarantee” delivery of the Curriculum Sports Programme beyond Friday, March 30 this year.

The letter stated: “Due to the current situation of a lack of a Northern Ireland Executive the Irish FA Foundation have received a letter of offer from Department of Education NI (DENI) to provide funding until March 31, 2018.

“The permanent secretary in DENI has confirmed that after this point there will be no further funding for this programme which is now in the 10th year of delivery.”

The IFA reassured Mr. Farrell that it was continuing to explore options within the civil service and DENI in the hope that the decision would be reversed.

If further funding is not found, the letter revealed that the Irish FA Foundation would launch a ‘Let Them Play’ programme with officers in each council area.

“These staff will be responsible for Curriculum and After School delivery and a variety of community projects focused on health and education.

“We are currently engaging sponsors and funding bodies to support the work of this programme but we will also be offering coaching programmes to schools at a cost,” the correspondence stated.

Mr. Farrell had written to the IFA to express his “alarm” after learning that the Curriculum Sports Programme was to be “reduced drastically”.

The DUP Councillor stated: “This programme has proved invaluable in recent times with children right across the community enjoying structured and fun in a safe environment with suitable qualified coaches.”

Upon receiving the response from the IFA, Mr. Farrell said he was “deeply disappointed” to learn that the Department of Education had no plans to provide further funds for the scheme beyond the end of this month.

He said that having only one coach to cover the whole of the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council was an “unworkable” option.

Describing the work of the programme as “vital”, the Councillor said that a Minister was needed at Stormont to build on the progress that had been made by the coaching scheme over the last 10 years.

He warned: “The children are going to lose out. This will be a massive loss for everybody.

“We need to maintain what we have. Northern Ireland football is doing well on the world stage and there has been significant investment.

“We need to capitalise on this success, promote healthy living and challenge obesity.”

Meanwhile, Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, Rosemary Barton, has called the Department of Education’s decision to cease funding the programme “a huge retrograde step” to health and fitness promotion within primary schools.

She said: “I am informed that in the last academic year the team delivered over 800 sessions in 204 schools to over 19,500 pupils each week and mentored over 800 teachers and classroom assistants in the process.

“This combined with the work of the Ulster GAA results in over 40,000 children and over 400 schools receiving the provision each week and ensuring that pupils in Northern Ireland receive physical education curriculum delivery which is often neglected by primary schools.”

Mrs Barton added that she had written to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education requesting a review of the decision.

In a statement released to the Impartial Reporter, the Irish FA Foundation said it would endeavour to seek “suitable alternatives”, including lobbying to get funding restored if and when a devolved government is in place.