AN award-winning sports coaching programme that has improved the physical and mental well-being of thousands of Fermanagh schoolchildren over the last decade is set to continue after further funding was secured from the Department of Education until the end of October.

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 sees more than 50 staff from the Irish FA and Ulster GAA deliver physical education programmes to around 40,000 young people and 400 primary schools across the country.

Earlier this year, it emerged that the future of the programme, which has won awards in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain, was in doubt after the Department of Education announced there would be no further funding after March 31.

But, following Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s Northern Ireland Budget announcement on March 8, the Department has instead decided to carry on funding the programme with up to £750,000 available during this year.

Sandra Isherwood, principal of Jones Memorial Primary School in Enniskillen, said that, as one of the schools benefitting from the coaching, they were “very grateful” that the additional funding had been secured to extend the programme.

Mrs. Isherwood said that, through participating in the programme, her pupils had developed better coordination, balance, confidence and team-building skills.

She said: “Many of the pupils would otherwise not have been able to access this specialist coaching to assist them with their understanding of a healthier lifestyle. The feel-good factor is then brought into the classroom where teachers can note they are more focused on their work and their attention span has increased.”

Fermanagh and Omagh District Councillor, Raymond Farrell, said he was “really delighted” to learn that the funding had been reinstated, adding that there had been a great reaction to the news from coaches, children and parents.

Mr. Farrell, a DUP councillor representing Fermanagh North, said: “I was very keen to have this money reinstated and I sought the relevant agencies to find the money which brings such physical, mental and social benefits to our local children.

“I wish to pay tribute to Arlene Foster, among others, for the efforts she made and the extra money that was given for this exceptional programme.”

He added: “The programme has been of tremendous benefit to the Fermanagh Omagh region, both in terms of cross-community engagement and engagement in sport. I hope this valued work will be sustained in the long-term as it brings such holistic benefits to so many.”

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, Rosemary Barton, who also lobbied the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education over the issue, called for “long-term strategic planning” in relation to the programme.

“This stop-start approach to this project needs to end. Instead it needs to be a programme that proceeds into the future with certainty,” she added.

Both the IFA and Ulster GAA have welcomed the Department of Education’s decision to extend funding for the Curriculum Sports Programme until the end of October.

IFA Chief Executive, Patrick Nelson, said: “It was fantastic to receive the news that the funding will continue for this programme for a further seven months.”

He added: “The children that benefit from this programme go on to play a wide variety of sports including football and Gaelic games. The IFA and Ulster GAA coaches involved in this programme provide a vital service both for the schools and for broader society.”

Ulster GAA Chief Executive, Brian McAvoy, commended the Department for their “foresight and vision” in continuing to realise the importance of the programme.

“The benefits of the programme are wide-ranging and introduce young children to many of the fundamental skills in life,” he added.

The Curriculum Sports Programme has been operating in schools since 2007 and, since 2010, the Department of Education has invested over £10 million in funding the IFA and GAA in delivering coaching sessions in primary schools.

A spokesperson for the Department added: “The continuation of funding provides the Department the opportunity to consider future priorities in relation to Physical Education in primary schools, particularly in the context of working with other Executive departments on the need to address rising levels of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.”