Government promises almost 20,000 extra free preschool places this month

Childcare providers say they are working for nothing to fulfill a Government promise of almost 20,000 extra free preschool places for children this month.

They warn that further expanding the scheme to create 35,000 more places by next April will place an impossible burden on many preschools — unless proper financial support is provided.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone yesterday heralded the success of the expanded Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme which previously provided 67,000 children with three hours free preschool care a day for 38 weeks in the year prior to them starting school.

As of this month, the scheme is extended to two preschool years, kicking in once a child turns three years of age and catering for them for as much as 88 weeks by the time they start school.

That meant at least an extra 18,000 children were due to start in recent days, on top of the previously planned for 67,000.

A further intake is scheduled for January when an extra 21,800 will become eligible and again in April when 14,300 will join classes, almost doubling the total number of ECCE places required.

The minister said: “This is a tremendously exciting time for 85,000 children now eligible to enter preschool to begin the journey and adventure into a life of education.”

She said the scheme would save parents up to €4,000 a year on childcare costs and she said she acknowledged “the huge role of staff, management, and providers in delivering this service and supporting local families”.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone

Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland, which represents preschool owners and managers, however, said praise is not enough and that many hours have been put into making preparations for the scheme over the summer without payment.

“The fact is that this scheme does not pay enough to cover fair salaries and the Government already knows this,” she said.

“It only runs for 38 weeks a year forcing them onto the dole over the summer months, or in the case of owners, no income at all. It is very demanding on the administration side and yet pays for zero time input from preschool managers in this regard.”

Ms Heeney also said the new rolling enrolment approach is experimental and would cause problems.

“Holding spaces open for children and ensuring preschools have the space and the people to cater for these additional children, starting midway through the year, should not be taken for granted and it’s simply not possible for many preschools.

“And it is likely that there will be insufficient places to meet demand for children due to begin preschool in January and April.”

Early Childhood Ireland has said the difficulties caused for the sector must be addressed in next month’s budget through an increase in the capitation payment for each child enrolled, and the extension of the annual contract from 38 weeks to 41 to cover the labour involved in preparing and administering the scheme.

Those changes together would require an additional investment of €92m in the scheme.

Ms Zappone said the new National Forum for the Early Years Care and Education Sector, which she announced last month would be established, will meet for the first time on September 28 and would provide an opportunity for all relevant issues to be discussed.


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