Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 June 2010

10:30 am

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The ECCE scheme is an excellent one under which young children have free access for one year to pre-school activity and programmes before they enter primary school. It will have a positive effect on young children in getting them ready for primary school.

A constituent of mine has a son who will be four years old at the beginning of July. He is deemed old enough to start primary school in September, but owing to the date on which his birthday falls, he falls outside the qualifying period to receive funding under the scheme. When my constituent went to avail of the funding available, it turned out that his son was not the right age to avail of the pre-school programme, but he is deemed old enough to start primary school. It is an issue that was brought to my attention. I raise it to see whether it is an oversight in the scheme that can be remedied or whether it is a feature of the fact that any scheme has to have a start date and an end date and that there will always be people on either side of it. If it is the former, and I hope that it is, I ask that we do something about it. If it is the latter, and it is a case of somebody falling outside the horizon of the scheme, I ask that we examine it. I am sure there are many children in such circumstances who are old enough to go to primary school at the end of the summer.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I will take this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Deputy Barry Andrews, who has responsibility for the implementation of the new scheme to provide a free pre-school year of early childhood care and education, ECCE, which was introduced last January.

The introduction of the scheme is one of the most significant developments in early childhood care and education which has taken place in Ireland to date. Building on the progress made in the past decade in investing in child care and developing educational frameworks for young children, we are now taking the first major step in providing universal pre-school education for all children. Approximately 4,000 child care pre-school services participate in the scheme and provide the free pre-school provision for 51,000 children.

Children are eligible for the free pre-school year when they are aged between three years and three months and four years and six months in September in the relevant year. This will mean that children born between 2 February 2006 and 30 June 2007 will qualify for the free pre-school year in September 2010. The upper age limit does not apply where children are developmentally delayed and would benefit from participating in the pre-school year at a later age, or where local primary school enrolment policy requires them to start junior infants aged five years and seven months or older.

The objective of the ECCE scheme is to make early learning in a formal setting available to eligible children in the key developmental year before they commence primary school. To achieve this, services participating in the pre-school year will be expected to provide age-appropriate activities and programmes to children within a particular age cohort. Targeting the pre-school year at a particular age cohort is clearly fundamental to the scheme and it is necessary, therefore, to set minimum and maximum limits to the age range within which children will participate in the scheme each year.

In setting the minimum and maximum age limits, account was taken of several factors, including the fact that the majority of children commence primary school between the ages of four years and six months and five years and six months. Notwithstanding this, the ECCE scheme provides for an eligibility range of almost 17 months.

As in the case of any scheme introduced, cases will arise where individuals would prefer if certain conditions did not apply. However, the scheme must remain sufficiently targeted to ensure the best delivery of pre-school education. Therefore, it is considered that the age range provided for is appropriate.

The ECCE scheme does not provide for any exceptions to the lower age of just over three years and two months at which children become eligible to avail of the free pre-school year. A number of parents have asked for the lower age limit to be reduced on the grounds that they wish to send their children to school when they are four years and two months of age or less. The issue was referred by some of these parents to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. That office found no reason to remove or amend the lower age range.

Arrangements are already in place for the pre-school year which is due to commence in September 2010 and these do not provide for any amendment in the lower age for eligibility.

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.

An annual capitation fee of more than €2,400 is paid to participating services. This is equivalent to €64.50 per week where a service participate for 38 weeks and €48.50 per week where it participates for 50 weeks. A higher capitation fee of €2,850 per annum is available to sessional play-school services in which all child care workers have specified qualification levels which are above the minimum requirements for the scheme.

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. These 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.

The Minister of State is delighted that the Government has made the far-sighted decision to introduce this new scheme. It gives equal opportunities to all children, particularly the most marginalised who would otherwise not be able to attend pre-school, as well as helping parents who, up to now, had to meet the cost of pre-school provision themselves. It will also benefit services which will gain certainty and sustainability in what are, for most, very trying times. The Minister for State believes the long-term benefits will be enormously significant to all of our children and society as a whole. He is confident that the scheme provides the framework to achieve this ambition.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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The key part of the Minister of State's reponse was that a number of parents had asked to send their children when they were below the age of four years and two months, which is the case with my constituent. The Department found no reason to remove or amend the lower age range. Perhaps when there is more money to examine these schemes in the future and see how they can be improved, it could be examined.