By Evelyn Ring and Stephen Rodgers
From next September every child in Ireland will be able to start pre-school at age three and remain there until they start primary school.
Children will also be able to enrol in pre-school at three different times in the year – September, January and April.
Currently, children are only eligible for a year's pre-school (38 weeks) through the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Dr James Reilly, said that in line with the expansion of free pre-school, capitation payments to providers would be restored to pre-2012 levels.
Around 67,000 children, about 95% of eligible children, have been participating in the ECCE programme each year.
It is reckoned that the extension the free childcare year will increase the number of children benefitting from free preschool to over 127,000 in a given year.
An extra 2,200 teachers will take up the bulk of an extra €144m available in 2016 to Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan.
They will reduce primary and second-level pupil-teacher ratios, but mainly ensure schools keep up with growth in numbers of pupils, and in those with special needs. But while welcomed by schools and teacher groups, all said these must be the first steps in reversing many years of education cuts.
Almost two-thirds of the 2,260 extra teachers - around 1,400 - are to meet enrolment increases at primary and second levels.
They include 600 extra resource teachers to cater for more children with disabilities, but at the same reduced levels of individual allocation as in recent years.
An extra 300 teachers will help reduce primary class sizes, seeing the mainstream pupil-teacher ratio fall from 28:1 to 27:1 in September. In a nod to the looming election, the Labour Party minister said the measure will begin the process of putting an end to classes of over 30 children.