Tuesday, 18 May 2004
Question 35: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the standing of the early start programme; if there has been expansion of the service since 1997; his plans for developing and expanding the scheme during the remainder of 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14587/04]
I recognise that high quality early education prior to entry into formal schooling can lead to lasting social benefits that persist throughout life both for the individual and for society. Research also indicates that early childhood education is particularly beneficial for children who are disadvantaged or who have special needs. Parents too can benefit significantly from involvement in early education through improved self-confidence and better relationships with their children.
The early start pre-school project was established in 40 primary schools in designated areas of urban disadvantage in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Drogheda and Dundalk during 1994 and 1995. The aims of the project are to expose young children to an educational programme which enhances their overall development, prevent school failure and offsets the effects of social disadvantage. The approach taken is to establish groups of 15 pupils in existing primary schools in disadvantaged areas with each class being run by a primary school teacher and a qualified child care worker. While the early start curriculum emphasises the development of cognitive and language skills, due regard is also had to personal and social development.
The early start service has not been expanded since 1995. As part of a detailed review of educational disadvantage programmes, my Department is exploring how early childhood education should best be delivered in the future. I am particularly concerned to ensure that any future actions by my Department in this area are based on a collaborative approach with other Departments involved in the overall early childhood care and education sector. Meeting the overall objective of providing the best possible service to the communities and children involved requires that any educational provision by my Department take account of child care measures under the remit of other Departments.
The future development of the early start pre-school project is being considered as part of this process and I will make an announcement in this regard as soon as the detailed review of all initiatives to tackle educational disadvantage has been completed.
I thank the Minister for his answer. At this time two years ago, we were all in count centres. Given that the Government has been in office for two years, when will the review be completed? This programme has operated on a pilot basis since its introduction when we were last in Government ten years ago. No additional school has been opened since then. Only 40 out of 350 disadvantaged schools are able to avail of this scheme. The Minister frequently says that early intervention is important. Unfortunately, the first year of the debate on disadvantage was spent examining third level rather than pre-school level, as should have been the case.
As a review is under way, it is fortunate for the Minister that what he can say may be limited. Does he believe the scheme should be extended? When will the review be completed? There was mention of integrating this service with the home school liaison service for co-ordination purposes. If this is to go ahead, how will it work? Will the Minister confirm he will give priority to this area, especially given that disadvantage is best tackled by addressing it early?
The area of pre-school and early learning will have a priority in the new disadvantage programme we put in place. I agree that the earlier we intervene on behalf of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the better it is for the children, as proven by some stark facts and figures. The Deputy asked whether I thought the early start programme should be extended. I would not go that far at this stage. However, we need more extensive provision to cater for pre-school children, particularly in disadvantaged areas, and we will try to do this.
While the attention of many may have been focused on third level issues in my first year in office, that was not the case from my point of view. On more than one occasion I made it clear that the issue of third level was at the end of the queue and, while we had to look after those at that end, the real issue was tackling the problems at pre-school stage and right through primary school. In that I agree with the Deputy.
A number of reports have been published. We have introduced the centre for early childhood development and education. It is developing a framework for early childhood education, including a quality in education mark. It is developing targeted intervention on a pilot basis for children and many other items I do not want to detail. That work and the White Paper will form the basis for expanding a service to pre-school level.
The Minister said he did not know if the plan could be expanded. Nobody will establish a pre-school in a disadvantaged area if he or she is supposed to make a living out of it. It will not be possible to make money in those circumstances. Will the disadvantage review consider the age at which children begin primary school and will the Minister give any consideration to changing it?
The short answer to that is "Yes". It may be extremely important. Until now, the Department has not been actively engaged in the pre-school area. While there has been a demarcation issue with other Departments, part of our focus will be to try to advance our remit and extend education from birth to 18 years.