Seanad debates

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Commencement Matters

Early Childhood Care and Education

10:30 am

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I raise the need for him to clarify the issue of a second year of free preschool care for a child who already has received his or her first year of free preschool care. I have met a number of people who had children who were almost four but had missed the cut-off date to enable them to attend school. As they already had participated in the preschool year, they wished to participate in a second year and the parents felt that, in such circumstances, they should be entitled to a second year.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this matter. The early childhood care and education programme was introduced in 2010. Aligned with the school year, the programme provides one year, that is, the 38 weeks of the academic year, of free preschool to every child before he or she starts primary school. At present, children aged between three years and two months and four years and seven months in the September of the enrolment year qualify for the programme. This means, for example, that children born between 2 February 2011 and 30 June 2012 qualify for the preschool provision in the current school year. Children born after 30 June qualify in the school year commencing in September 2016. In budget 2016, I announced additional funding of €85 million for the child care sector to support the achievement of affordable, accessible and high-quality child care. This funding represents an increase of 33% in the annual investment in child care supports in my Department and allows us to deliver significant enhancements to a number of child care support programmes.

Given what is known about the importance of quality investment in the early years, I am pleased the Government has been able to implement one recommendation of the expert advisory group on the early years strategy, which also was made by the interdepartmental group on future investment in child care I established earlier this year, namely, to provide free preschool care for every child in the country from when he or she turns three until he or she starts primary school. To ensure that children can benefit from this entitlement at the earliest opportunity, they will be able to join the programme at three different points in the year, as opposed to the current position in which one can only join in September. In addition to the regular intake point of September, children in future also will be able to join free preschool in January and April. This new entitlement comes into effect from September 2016. This start-up date was deliberately chosen. This new entitlement to free preschool for all children means the number of children who benefit from free preschool is estimated to increase from approximately 67,000 at present to approximately 127,000 children when fully rolled out. A significant expansion of the capacity of the preschool sector is therefore required. The September 2016 date was chosen to give providers enough time to make any changes they consider to be necessary to their preschool service and to put in place extra staff resources to accommodate the additional numbers that will benefit from the programme.

The three registration points we are providing for in the programme means the total number of weeks children will spend in free preschool will depend on two factors, namely, their birth date and the age at which they start primary school. Children qualifying for the preschool provision in September 2016 will have a birth date between 1 January 2012 and 31 December 2013.Some of these children, those with birth dates between 1 January 2012 and 30 June 2012, will have already qualified for the provision under the age criteria for this year, which I outlined earlier, and are currently availing of the programme. This means that those children will be entitled to enrol again in September 2016 for a further 38 weeks free preschool provision, bringing the possible maximum number of weeks they can avail of to 76 weeks.

Children born between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2012 do not qualify for the free preschool provision in the current school year as the cut-off date is 30 June 2012. However, they will qualify in September 2016 under the new age criteria for the enhanced programme but will only be entitled to 38 weeks of one free preschool year. Under the extended programme, children cannot enrol for free preschool if their age will exceed five years and six months at the end of a given preschool year.

I understand this expansion of the programme, and the change in entitlements, is one that it may take people a little time to get used to but I am confident that this budgetary measure represents a significant improvement in our support for children and families, something to which the Government has made a strong commitment.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I agree wholeheartedly with the final paragraph of the Minister's response. There is no question that the recent budgetary change represents a major improvement for children. The specific point in the matter I raise relates to the fact that one of the particular children whose parents I spoke to will start school next September. The child is already in a second preschool year. It appears to me that many children would be in that category. By its nature, the intention of the preschool year was that most children would go to school directly afterwards because there was not a second preschool year but in certain limited cases, parents may take the decision that their child is still a little too young to go to school. The situation prevailed in advance of the Minister devising the new programme. I expect that cohort of children to be quite small and in those circumstances, I did not think it would affect the industry and the provisions the Minister has made to cater for the expansion many facilities must undertake. The crux of the matter is the new entitlement in terms of the cut-off date, which comes into effect from September 2016. That puts an end to any case the child in question would have for a second preschool year.

In case the Minister thinks I do not know what I am talking about, a limited number of children are availing of a second preschool year, where that was not the original intention, but who would otherwise have gone to school. I thought that perhaps the second half of that year could have come under the remit of the new regulations for children who are already in the system. I do not anticipate the number involved would be large. However, I appreciate the great efforts that have been made to introduce the second preschool year and the attempt to get children into preschool at different stages with the three entry points. I congratulate the Minister on his work in that regard. I do not know the number of children in the category I have raised but perhaps the Minister considers it would be too many to facilitate.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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It is just a technical situation. To be honest, nobody has lost out as a consequence of the change, although some have not gained as much as others. Senator Noone's point about the school starting age is an issue that did consume us for a while. We were very concerned about the fact that due to expense, many parents feel under pressure to send their children to school a little bit younger than they might otherwise like to. International evidence shows us that in some such instances, children are disadvantaged because they are not as intellectually mature or physically mature. By extending the programme from three years to three years and two months and stopping at five and a half years rather than four years and seven months, we will double the number of children in the preschool sector in a couple of years. That was done purposely in order that the sector itself would grow into the space and grow capacity because there was concern that providers would not be able to cope.

I pay tribute to preschool leaders and providers who perform a most valuable service. This service has been proven not alone to improve the ability of children to read and in other areas but also in terms of being able to socialise. Another benefit is that later in life, they might attain higher educational achievements, which also leads to better employability and more independence for them. The core of what we are doing is to try to give every child a fair chance because some children, through no fault of their own, are disadvantaged and that must be addressed. They are the ones who have been shown to gain the most from the preschool curriculum. I am very pleased with the new scheme which means that children from the age of three onwards will be able to stay in preschool until they are ready to go to school at five years and six months. I thank Senator Noone for her support.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I accept what the Minister said. I appreciate where he is coming from but it does not really answer my question about the children who have a potential second year that was not intended before they go to school. I gather that the cut-off point is the crux of the issue for the child in question. I thank the Minister.