10 December 2015
By Tom O’Sullivan
Fine Gael Senator for Cork North Central and the party’s Seanad Spokesperson on Health Colm Burke has today welcomed a package of €85 million extra investment which was announced by Minister James Reilly for early years and after-school, including important improvements to the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme, as part of Budget 2016.
At present, the ECCE programme covers children who have reached the age of 3 years and 2 months by 1st September of the relevant year. From September 2016, the programme will be expanded to allow children to access free pre-school from the time they are 3 years of age and to remain there until they start primary school (or up to age 5½ at the end of the pre-school year i.e. end June). This extended free pre-school provision was first recommended by the Expert Advisory Group on the Early Years Strategy in 2013.
Under this extended programme, there will be three opportunities for eligible children to enrol during the pre-school year: children who reach the age of 3 between April and August will have the opportunity to enrol for the programme in September; children who reach the age of 3 between September and December will have the opportunity to enrol in January; and children who reach the age of 3 between January and March will have the opportunity to enrol in April.
The number of weeks of free pre-school a child will benefit from will depend on their birth date and on the age at which they subsequently start primary school. This number ranges from 38 weeks (for children born between April and August who start school at age 4) to 88 weeks (for children born between January and March who start school at age 5). This equates to an estimated 23 additional weeks on average.
The number of children benefiting from the ECCE programme will increase from 67,000 to over 127,000 in a given year. However, the higher level of participation in the programme is not expected to arise until April 2017.
The Minister James Reilly confirmed to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children that he had met with senior representatives from the early years sector to discuss this and other improvements that were announced as part of the €85 million investment package in Budget 2016. The meeting was positive and constructive, with all parties expressing commitment to work together on the issues of capacity and high quality pre-school provision. My Department will be working closely with the early years sector to build capacity in time for the first intake in September 2016, and for subsequent increased availability in January and April 2017.