Seanad debates

Thursday, 14 May 2009

3:00 pm

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)

I thank Senator Fitzgerald for raising this important issue. As the Senator is aware, I have responsibility for the implementation of the new scheme to provide a free pre-school year of early childhood care and education, ECCE, which will be introduced from January next. The introduction of the scheme is, I believe, one of the most significant developments in early childhood care and education that has taken place in Ireland to date. Building on the progress made over the past decade, in terms of investing in child care and in developing educational frameworks for young children, we are now taking the first major step in providing universal pre-school education for all children.

Children will be eligible for the free pre-school year where they are aged between three years and three months and four years and six months on 1 September of each year. Exceptions will be made where a child has special needs or to accommodate children due to the enrolment policy of a local primary school. These decisions follow consultations we have held with the NCNA, the IPPA and other stakeholders. Research underpins the importance of delivering pre-school provision in a consistent format based within an appropriate educational framework. For this reason, the pre-school year scheme has been designed to provide 570 hours for each participating child, which will be delivered on a weekly basis over the course of each year.

Where children attend a sessional play-school, they will receive three hours per day each week over 38 weeks. To take account of the fact that young children are cared for in a variety of settings, a child attending a full-time or part-time service will receive two hours and 15 minutes per day each week for 50 weeks. An annual capitation fee of over €2,400 will be paid to participating services. This is equivalent to €64.50 per week where a service is participating for 38 weeks and €48.50 per week where it participates for 50 weeks. Services will be paid in advance at the start of each term. As a free pre-school year, participating services must agree to provide the service in return for the capitation grant.

Services may charge parents for additional services provided these are clearly optional. These would include additional hours over and above the free pre-school year requirement and additional services in the form of various one-off or ongoing activities or services such as outings, birthday parties, specific teaching resources, such as dance or music, or food. However, all additional services offered must be clearly optional and subject to parents' agreement. It is also essential that appropriate programme based activities are provided to children not participating in an optional activity.

It is hoped that at least 70,000 children will participate in the scheme from the early stages of its introduction, which would represent 90% of all children eligible within the 15 month age range allowed for, and almost all children when the pattern of enrolments in the year prior to starting primary school settles into place. A sufficient number of pre-school places is expected to be available based on the existing capacity in the sector and it will be open to all pre-school services, of which there are almost 5,000, to participate. The fact that payments will be made to services at the start of each term, rather than on a weekly or monthly basis during the year, will be a very significant benefit to services, particularly in the current economic context which has resulted in high vacancy rates in many services.

While some high cost services have argued that the rate of capitation should be higher, the large majority of services have expressed their support for the scheme in strong terms. The level of capitation allowed for is significantly higher than that proposed under the NESF's proposed free pre-school year scheme and is far higher than that allowed for under the equivalent scheme operating in Northern Ireland, which amounts to £30 per week, despite having similar conditions. For most services, the scheme will see an increase in their income and this will allow them to meet the higher standards required for participation relative to the existing requirements under the child care regulations. The higher standards concerning qualification of staff and the educational programme guided by Síolta will ensure that a quality service is provided to all children in their pre-school year and not just those whose parents can afford to pay higher fees.

I am aware that a member of Senator Fitzgerald's party has called for the scheme not to be free, but to allow commercially based pre-schools and Montessori schools to continue to charge fees from qualified parents, in addition to collecting the capitation fee, in the form of a "top-up". This would greatly reduce the benefit of the scheme for those families and would also make the scheme inaccessible for families who are under financial pressure, inevitably leading to disadvantaged children being left out. As research demonstrates that the greatest benefit from pre-school education is found among children who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, this would be doubly unfair and is an outcome I could not stand over.

I am delighted the Government has made the far-sighted decision to introduce this new scheme. It will give equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised who would not otherwise be able to attend pre-school, and help parents who, up to now, had to meet the cost of pre-school provision. It will also benefit services which will gain certainty and sustainability in what are, for most, very trying times. I believe the long-term benefits will be enormously significant to all of our children and to society as a whole. It will involve time and effort to ensure the greatest possible levels of participation in the scheme and to reach the highest standards of early years care and education provision. However, I am confident that the scheme provides the framework to achieve this ambition.

Comments

carole Barrett
Posted on 19 Jun 2009 12:40 am (Report this comment)

As a preschool provider I am at a loss to understand how the government obtained permission to give my preschool places for free to parent's and in return give me a capitation grant of 64.50

I also cannot understand why the grant was not payable directly to parent's and allow them their constitutional right to choose the preschool/education of their choice for their child/children. Parent's will be forced to avail of the free place provider and this in turn will close down preschools who do not provide or cannot provide due to the criteria and will eventually lead to less preschool places in the community. And quality will definately reduce as schools will be unable to replace resources or worn and torn equipment etc etc.

After all the government paid the early childhood supplement directly to parent's so why not replace it with this ecce scheme.

This scheme will most certainly close my business, my livelihood and no doubt I will join the already lengthy dole queues. I will not be participating in this scheme, which is dictatorship at it's best. I had a viable business before this scheme, I could replace my equipment and resources etc when needed, I provided quality preschool to the people that mattered and they were the people who CHOSE to avail of my service.

This whole scheme is unconstitutional and ethically wrong.


Pity ye didn't step in and tell the bankers and builders what to charge!!!!!!

mandy kelly
Posted on 19 Jun 2009 11:59 pm (Report this comment)

To the lady who owns the pre-school.I have sympathy at the worries you have, but some parts of your comment are very disturbing as the way you described you provided quality preschool to the people who mattered,the people who could afford to pay high preschool costs you mean.That sounds terribly greedy.
In scotland were my brother lives with his family all preschool is mandatory and free to every child rich or poor and they all get the same quality of childcare and early education.
You should see this as a blessing as with more redundancies and job losses even those in higher paid jobs are going to be effected and this may lead to an empty preschool for you and a full preschool for they less greedy run preschools, this country has ripped off the people for to long and its now coming to a standstill. The only problem i see with this new system is the fact that barry andrews has described that some activities such as food or outings will be optional for parents, in other words the more well off children will go on outings that require extra fees or eat food provided by the preschool while the others will miss out, this is still a difference in standerds of early childcare education and in itself is more damaging to children as they will notice the difference, feel it and wonder why they dont do all the fun things other children are doing at least if they didnt go due to lack of money at home they wouldnt no the difference.Being different to everybody else is the worst way to damage a childs self esteem there for damaging there confidence and there for there ability to concentrate and learn.
surely anybody can see this.
As a mother of a 7 year old i see this in her school and its heartbreaking.some children dont go on the yearly school tour as theres just no money at home. some dont have there books as even with the help of the back to school allowence its just not enough to cover the books and uniform and all the extras.
this needs to be reviewed again before implemented.
I done early childcare education F E T A C level 5 which is a course set out by the government to ensure childcare standards for irelands children so maybe the people setting this and any thing else involving childrens living standards should do this course too other wise whats the point.

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